Faced with an unexpected bounty of additional money, the New Orleans City Council tacked an extra $8.9 million onto Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s proposed $593 million operating budget for 2016 on Thursday, prepping the spending plan for what is expected to be a quick final approval on Dec. 1.
The final $601.7 million budget includes new money for 911 operations, the Public Defenders Office and the Coroner’s Office, and money to start paying down tens of millions in judgments against the city that in some cases have gone unpaid since the 1990s.
The spending plan leaves all the elements in Landrieu’s original proposed budget intact, including a controversial plan to hike parking meter fees and extend the hours — a proposal that riled a majority of the council earlier this month.
Landrieu cast the budget as a move both toward bringing city services to their proper levels after years of underfunding as City Hall grappled with deficits and also toward dealing with long-simmering problems, including a recently settled pair of lawsuits brought by firefighters, that had hung over his administration and its predecessors.
“We came a very, very long way, but we have more to do,” the mayor said after the changes were approved .
While the City Council had originally planned to give the budget final approval Thursday, a procedural glitch prevented it from taking a final vote. Instead, council members approved a series of amendments before shelving the budget until their Dec. 1 meeting, the date at which some legal notices published by the city said the vote would be held.
Little is expected to change between now and that meeting, and, given the council members’ support for the amendments adopted Thursday, the budget is likely to pass easily.
Council members, who have been holding both public hearings and private meetings with the administration since the mayor released his proposed budget last month, found themselves Thursday largely divvying up new money that had been formally identified by the city’s Revenue Estimating Conference earlier that morning.
The additional $8.9 million includes $2 million in permits and fees that will come in as the World Trade Center is renovated into a Four Seasons hotel and a similar amount that will be provided by rosier-than-expected collections of motor vehicle and hotel-motel taxes.
About $1 million of that money will go toward beefing up operations at the Orleans Parish Communications District, which handles 911 emergency calls and dispatching for the New Orleans Police Department, Fire Department and Emergency Medical Services.
Council President Jason Williams and Councilwoman Susan Guidry, with support from others on the council, had called for beefing up funding for that operation at a news conference Wednesday, arguing that the center is understaffed and workers are paid too little — leading to calls that aren’t answered quickly or sometimes aren’t answered at all, they said.
The Public Defenders Office also will get $250,000 more than it had been expecting, an amount that should help prevent recently announced furloughs in 2016. The office already had seen an increase in city funding in the mayor’s proposed budget in an attempt to partially offset a cut in about $1 million in its state funding next year.
Officials also are working to find city-owned office space that the Public Defenders Office can use rent-free.
Additional money also will go to the Coroner’s Office to hire more personnel, freeing up medical staff who have had to deal with extra administrative duties.
Some of the new money also is going to Traffic Court, which gave the city control of its $4.5 million budget for the first time this year. The new process led to errors in Landrieu’s original budget plan that would have shortchanged the court by about $1.2 million.
The plan also calls for using about $1.25 million to secure a loan of up to $10.5 million to pay off outstanding judgments against the city. There is no plan yet for how to prioritize those judgments, which total more than $35 million, though Landrieu and other administration officials said the city would look to settle them based in part on what kind of deals it can cut with the plaintiffs.
“My strong suggestion would be to tell everyone who’s out there who has a judgment to come and negotiate with us,” Landrieu said.
The remaining $5 million of the $8.9 million will be combined with $10 million already included in the budget to make a down payment on the deal with the firefighters. The rest of the $75 million involved in that deal, which settles suits over back pay and pension payments as well as requiring changes to the firefighters retirement fund, will be paid out over about a dozen years, funded in part by a 2.5-mill property tax the city is expected to put before voters next year.
While Thursday’s meeting was largely cordial, council members did spar over one issue. Councilwoman LaToya Cantrell had proposed adding $250,000 to the budget of the New Orleans Recreation Development Commission to pay for increased security at its facilities. That money would have come from the Police Department’s budget.
Cantrell cast the measure as a way of protecting children, but other council members, including Williams and Councilman James Gray, said the presence of police officers at playgrounds could contribute to an atmosphere of fear, particularly for minorities.
The amendment failed 3-4, with Cantrell, Guidry and Councilman Jared Brossett voting in favor.
Overall, the budget increases spending on the NOPD by $10.8 million, including money to provide raises, hire more officers and pay overtime in order to cover manpower gaps.
There also is money for new firefighters — the first time the department will be able to hire recruits in years — and firetrucks to replace part of the department’s aging fleet.
In addition, the plan beefs up the Public Works Department and includes money to keep a street maintenance crew in each council district on a daily basis. At present, crews rotate through the districts fixing road problems. Another $100 million in road projects in the next several years also would be funded if voters approve a bond issue in April.
The proposed increases in parking meter rates and hours, which has been one of the few contested parts of this year’s budget, did not come up for discussion. The proposal would increase the current rate of $1.50 an hour to $3 an hour in the French Quarter and Central Business District and to $2 elsewhere in the city and extend their hours to 10 p.m.
That proposal has faced opposition from some business owners and council members. But the administration does not need the council to endorse the changes — it already has the authority to increase rates — and there was not enough time to pass an ordinance to block them, Cantrell said.
On housing, the budget includes about $17 million for affordable housing initiatives, including programs aimed at encouraging developers to include units in their projects for low-income residents.
Compared with sometimes acrimonious battles over the budget in previous years and administrations, the council and administration were largely congratulatory toward each other as they wrapped up the process Thursday — something that was alternately credited to the city’s better financial picture and to a better working relationship.
“I’d say we’re getting the hang of it,” Guidry said. “We’re starting to work like a well-oiled machine here on the budget, and it’s something you can really sense this year.”