By Nick Kindel
With Election Day finally here, most of our attention will be on the Presidential race, but two local races will also have a significant impact on our lives in New Orleans. Districts B and E will each elect new Councilmembers who may soon be thrown into one of City Council’s most important duties, passing the City’s 2013 budget. City Council’s budget hearings kick off tomorrow (Wednesday, Nov. 7) and culminate with passing the budget on Nov. 30.
The budget is not the most exciting issue, but it is important. It determines how much personnel and resources the City can allocate to address issues across the City. The City projects that it will have $491 million in its general fund for next year, about $8 million more than the revised 2012 budget. How the City allocates this $491 million will help determine how many pot holes are filled, how many blighted properties are torn down or fixed up, how many police officers are on the street, and how many NORD programs are available to children.
In August and September, Mayor Mitch Landrieu held meetings in each City Council District to get input on the budget, and on Oct. 29, he proposed the Administration’s budget to the City Council. At the Mayor’s District B budget meeting, Uptown Messenger reported on some of the common themes that people were concerned about, two of which were road conditions and crime. How does the mayor’s budget address these issues? In 2011, the City budgeted $3.91 million for roadway maintenance. This was reduced to $3.16 million in 2012. In 2013, the Mayor proposes to only spend $1.64 million on roadway maintenance (there is also $2.72 million proposed for “Recovery Roads Program Support” but there is not a description of what these funds will be used for).
Crime is another major issue in New Orleans. The Police Department budget has increased from $115.9 million in 2011 to $119.0 million in 2012. The Mayor proposes to allocate $125.7 million in general fund dollars to NOPD in 2013 (plus another $7 million for the consent decree). For people interested in crime prevention through economic opportunities and youth development, spending on economic development was 2% of the budget and children and families was 3% of the budget in 2011 and 2012. Next year, the Mayor proposes to spend the same percentage of the budget in those areas.
One issue that I wrote about a few months back also has a connection to the budget. The City Planning Commission’s Neighborhood Participation Program would improve resident and neighborhood notification of developments in their community. This plan is working its way through City Council for final approval. Even if this plan is approved by City Council, it cannot be fully implemented because City Planning’s budget request for this program is not being recommended for funding. City Council can change this, but will only do so if the public lets them know that it is important.
Now it is the Council’s turn to review the budget, hold hearings with each department, and get resident input before passing the final budget on November 30 (here is the complete hearing schedule for Nov. 7 through 15). City Council takes public comments at these hearings, but it is challenging for people to engage in this process because the meetings are during the day and half a dozen departments will be scheduled for the same four-hour block of time. Since it is so difficult for people to get involved, very few individuals provide their input.
The New Orleans Coalition on Open Governance (NOCOG)’s Budgeting for Democracy campaign has asked City Council to hold their meeting in the evening and make other changes that would make it easier to engage in this process. City Council responded saying that evening meetings do not work, are too expensive, and do not serve a purpose. The Budgeting for Democracy campaign wants to show that the community supports an easier way to engage in process, and is asking people to sign this petition to Council to change its process.
So how can people provide their input to City Council? NOCOG’s Budgeting for Democracy campaign realizes that not everyone can show up for meetings. NPN, one of the campaign partners, put together a guide on the City’s budget process to help people to understand the budget. The Budgeting for Democracy campaign has created a comment card that you can fill out and that we will read at the Council meetings. If you want to email your input to City Council, you can just click this link for all of the Councilmember’s emails.
No matter which issue is important to you, you should let City Council know your budget priorities. After you vote today, please go to the NOCOG website for all of these resources available to help get your input to City Council. This is our city and our money, so we should decide how it is spent.