Interview With New Orleans Mitch Landrieu City Overview
Written by  // Thursday, 23 December 2010 11:23 //

     Since City Hall's construction fifty years ago, the walls of the Mayor's office at Duncan Plaza have featured a covering of Brazilian cherry wood.   The wood paneling had been a donation from former Mayor Chep Morrison and were the shining classic feature of an otherwise modernist building.
       Mayor Ray Nagin had the panels painted industrial grey.  It was just one of Nagin's choices from which Mayor Mitch Landrieu (and his predecessor Marc Morial) have recoiled from in horror.   That reaction, though, was pedestrian compared to Landrieu's discovery of the city's near bankrupt financial state which he stood to inherit from Nagin upon taking his oath of office half a year ago.

       As 2010 drew to an end, Landrieu, sitting in his grey-twinged office, reflected on those difficult first few months in office, in an interview with the Editorial Board of The Louisiana Weekly.
       "The budget crisis was dramatic," Landrieu began.  "I had always known that the city had a structural deficit.   Historically, mayors had always done that.  I had always thought very strongly that was a problem.  My work in the legislature showed that. One of the first things that I did with a bunch of young legislators--full of ourselves--was debt management."
       "But I had no idea that this city had an eighty million dollar deficit, even during the transition--because of the information we were given.  We knew we had some, but we really didn't know how bad it was.  That was a catastrophic event for us.  And, then the BP oil spill was unexpected.  That was something we had to respond to.   And, so handling those two major things was a problem."
       "One of the things that made the budget issue much, much harder was that the last administration, and the last council, only budgeted for a lot of things through October.  So, we had some hard, hard management things that we had to fix."
       "I think the big thing that was most helpful was deciding early on to confront those problems and deal with them now, whatever it took. So, the cuts, as painful as they were, were designed to put us in as good a position going forward."
       In real terms, this year's budget cut of $80 million over six months was equivalent to a cut of $160 million over most fiscal years--a historically massive reduction of the city's overall expenditures.  
       Going forward, to boost revenues, the Mayor and the Council have rolled forward milliages, increasing from 139 to 147 mills (nearly forty points higher than Jefferson, but almost forty mills lower than St. Tammany).  Together the city administration has also raised garbage fees to $24 per month per household, only three dollars less than the actual contracted cost.  Previously, Orleanians paid $12 per month, a legacy of not seeing any garbage fee increases in over two decades.  In general, accounting for both 2010 & 2011, the Mayor's cuts in spending exceed his tax/fee increases by a ratio of nearly four to one overall.
     "Everything we just talked about in the city council is about NEXT year," Landrieu emphasized.  "It is the first structurally sound budget that the City of New Orleans has had--I don't know--in a long, long time.   There is no structural deficit.  In other words, we pay for everything.  For every dollar we spend, we have a revenue source that is the same level as the expenditure.  That has never happened, at least in my lifetime."
     "So big picture, aside from what were spending the money on, that's a very important step we took," the Mayor continued, "Going forward, we are going to spend thirty million dollars less going forward than the last administration was on target to do.  Then what we did was, we stopped paying for things with savings, and stopped paying for things with Hurricane money.   That's how we created the 'pay as you go' budget, which took us back to substantially less than what the pre-Katrina funding levels were.  So, it's a much, much smaller government that you have going forward."
     In the next few years, Landrieu explained, "You will see considerable fiscal pressure to make government much smaller and leaner."  Moreover, throughout the next four to eight years, you will see "a complete realignment" of the private sector and government because of those fiscal pressures.
     The interview was held just after many of his fellow big city Mayors endorsed the "no labels" movement, seeking common ground between the political parties, and an end to blatant partisanship, for the national good--and the viability of their own cities.  
      Of their move, he said, "As a Mayor, I don't have the luxury of an unyielding commitment to a certain philosophy or to a political party.  I'm in the business of having to deliver results. Period, end of story.  And, I think what the Mayors are saying to the President and to Congress, that all those philosophical debates mean nothing to us.  The pothole has to get filled.  The police officer has to show up.  The fireman's got to be there for the fire.  Safety and permits has to be open.  And, whatever gets us to that, is something we're interested in.  And, whoever wants to help us get there, we'll work with...But, we don't have the luxury of pontification and theory."
      What that means is sometimes government must outsource, by privatizing, and sometimes it must bring things inside "like NORD". Landrieu says, he's not for smaller or bigger government, "I'm for making government work better."
       As for Hurricane Recovery, with the initial federal funding spent, there are few resources for the city, and, in fact, the recent Congressional extensions of the GO-Zone bonds over the next year may ultimately make little difference to Orleans Parish's restoration.
      The Mayor explained that the Bond Commission had adopted a rule post-Katrina/Rita that the local Mayor or Parish executive had to request the GO-Zone bonds.  Frankly, Landrieu admitted, Ray Nagin requested few, so the concentration of the bonds, and the subsequent construction projects, has been outside of Orleans Parish.  
           One of the few areas where the city has employed GO-Zone bonds, key restorations of Housing projects, will continue thanks to the White House-GOP tax cut deal, of with GO-Zone extensions were part.  And, the Mayor believes that a deal is on the table between Harry Reid and Mitch McConnell to extend the bonds lifespan to the end of 2012 as well.
          Speaking of the non-LSU/VA medical infrastructure, the new hospital in New Orleans East and many of the proposed Health clinics are dependent, he went on to explain, on the new Congress funding the Medicaid expansions and other provisions of the President's Health Care Act.   They will be built, the Mayor pledged, but "there is a wait and see" posture being adopted until next year's federal budget is approved--so as not to commit the city to projects that could go unfunded.     
          As for the loud, often racial controversy surrounding the re-negotiations of the garbage contracts, Landrieu said surprisingly, "I was not taken aback by the blowback."
         "I was told that if I came after those contracts, I was going to get punished," he continued, but the Mayor pushed on regardless..  "I thought that we were paying too much for those contracts."
          In particular, Landrieu found criticisms that the inside players in city government have changed little unfounded.  "During our transition, we had 424 citizens, on the seventeen committees. That's never happened before.  We have never had that breath of involvement before."
        "I think if you look at all of our boards and commissions, it's very diverse in every way. It's racially diverse; it's geographically diverse."
        You will see some of the well known faces, Landrieu admitted, stating, "You don't want to exclude people just because they know people," but as long as they can do the job, that's acceptable.  
         The important point, the Mayor maintained, is that in general, "if you look at this government, it's not the same old faces."
         The full audio interview with Landrieu can be found at http://www.gtmorning.com/original/rss_1-0.php

Christopher Tidmore-Bayoubuzz News
by Christopher Tidmore


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