Mar 112013

Allan Katz and Danae Columbus

When it all got started, the idea of New Orleans entering into voluntary consent decrees with our good friends in the federal government seemed brilliant. After all, the management of the New Orleans Police Department and the Criminal Sheriff’s Office (Parish Prison) had been a shambles for years. Surely, a cooperative arrangement with the feds in both instances would lead to more professional and effective administration of both the cops and the prison.

Among those who were enthusiastic about the prospect was New Orleans’ progressive moderate young mayor, Mitch Landrieu, who had just been elected to the city’s top political job by an overwhelming vote. What could possibly go wrong?

The answer is that from that point, just about everything has gone wrong. Far from behaving like cordial benefactors, the feds have begun to act like scam artists who have gotten their hooks into naïve victims and are now intent on extorting all the money that the victims possess. Mayor Landrieu says that as the talks have gone on, the price tag for the consent decrees has grown enormously and has now reached sums that New Orleans does not possess and cannot possibly afford.

But the feds say that once in the quicksand, there is no escape for New Orleans. The feds’ view is that the city has to stay in the deal whether we can afford the price tag or not. It appears that a federal judge will decide if New Orleans can pick up its ball and go home. If the judge decides the city has gone too far in the negotiations with the feds to withdraw, perhaps the city will be stuck not only with the consent decrees but the costs as well. And where will the money come from?

Although everyone is talking in estimates, it sounds as though the combined price tag for the consent decree for the NOPD and Orleans Parish Prison (OPP) will be in excess of $10 million and may well reach $15 million or more. Mayor Landrieu says that kind of cash cannot be found in the city’s coffers. So, he’d like to pull out of the deal. Presumably, the cops and OPP would continue to just muddle along as they’ve been doing for several generations.

The consent decrees seemed like a good idea at one time. Now, given their apparent costs, the consent decrees look like oppressive shackles that will bind New Orleans financially for years to come. And let’s not forget the new rate hike from your friends at the Sewerage and Water Board and the great job Assessor Errol Williams is doing in “adjusting” assessments. The taxpayers are going to see higher costs in several areas and fewer services as city budget cuts eat away at departments like Public Works. Complaining that your potholes or street lights need repairing might not do any good.

All of this is happening at a time when New Orleans is rightly being hailed as the comeback kid among American cities, having demonstrated incredible resilience in the wake of Hurricane Katrina now almost eight years ago. The combination of the Super Bowl and a successful Mardi Gras got the year off to a great start. Observers like Forbes Magazine are marveling at the influx of young entrepreneurs into the region. Leaders in the tourism industry are predicting that New Orleans will be among the national leaders in hotel room occupancy rates by the end of 2013. Bill Langkopp, Executive Director of the Louisiana Hotel Association, says new jobs are being created every day in the tourism industry.

So, if the costs associated with the consent decrees and new fees are beyond the average citizen’s ability to bear them, how does the City of New Orleans extricate itself from this mess? Please forward all suggestions to Mayor Mitch Landrieu or your favorite Councilmember.

Allan Katz spent 25 years as a political reporter and columnist at The Times-Picayune, and is now editor of the Kenner Star and host of several televsion programs, including the Louisiana Newsmaker on Cox Cable. Danae Columbus is executive producer of Louisiana Newsmaker, and has had a 30-year career in public relations, including stints at City Hall and the Dock Board. They both currently work for the Orleans Parish School Board. Among the recent candidates who have been represented by their public relations firm are City Councilwoman Stacy Head, Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne and council candidate Dana Kaplan.

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