Jul 292013

(Cartoon by Owen Courreges for UptownMessenger.com)

Owen Courreges

Detroit has gone bust, announcing that it will seek Chapter 9 bankruptcy protection. The Rust Belt icon of corruption, waste, and decay finally made the difficult decision to cut its losses.

In light of our own sordid history of corruption, waste, and decay, New Orleanians are understandably touchy about this development.  First Deputy Mayor and Chief Administrative Officer Andy Kopplin recently penned an opinion piece for the Times-Picayune entitled “Detroit went bust, not New Orleans” which was ostensibly intended to reassure us that the Big Easy isn’t heading down the same road as the Motor City.

Personally, I did not find this very reassuring in concept alone.  It’s vaguely unsettling that the moment a major American city goes belly-up , a major New Orleans official feels compelled to come out and say: “Don’t worry! We aren’t next!”  It’s disconcerting because Kopplin senses that we have grounds to be worried.

On the other hand, I understand that certain similarities between Detroit and New Orleans make this kind of exercise inevitable, and probably necessary. New Orleans is always fighting the perception of itself as a city in a permanent state of decline, a city slowly sinking into insolvency, and a city where reform amounts to little more than rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.  It’s easy to draw such a connection, even if it is inaccurate and outdated.

Much of what Kopplin argues amounts to self-congratulation by the Administration, but it has the virtue of being (at least mostly) a valid record of Landrieu’s accomplishments in getting the budget under control.  New Orleans’ budget was never as out-of-control as Detroit’s, but it was still a mess and tough choices had to be made.  He also correctly notes that the Firefighter’s pension fund needs to be dramatically reformed.

It’s not all positive, though.  The problem with Kopplin’s piece becomes evident as it targets the federal consent decree with the Sheriff’s Office relative to Orleans Parish Prison and the consent decree with the city relative to the NOPD, arguing that the costs imposed are excessive.  This is nothing we haven’t heard from Landrieu officials before, and it is becoming tiresome given the magnitude of the problems these decrees are designed to solve.

As I have noted in the past, OPP is dramatically underfunded on a per-prisoner basis, and prison overpopulation is largely a function of the NOPD’s arrest policies – something Landrieu bears responsibility for.  Conversely, the NOPD is already overfunded relative to comparable departments and ought to be able to absorb the costs of reform.  And lest we forget, both consent decrees are designed to rectify chronic constitutional abuses by the city, abuses that only the most Pollyanna Landrieu fan would believe are over.

I’ve begun to realize that Landrieu has a laser-like focus on the budget, usually to the exclusion of all competing considerations.  Even Landrieu’s notorious crackdowns on Alcoholic Beverage Outlets and live music venues may well have been, at least at their inception, as a push to increase revenues by sending out Department of Finance goons to shake down businesses.

The drive to demonstrate that we aren’t like Detroit, that we aren’t a failed city, can quickly devolve from a noble endeavor into a fanatical pathology if we aren’t careful in maintaining our perspective. I believe that Landrieu has become too comfortable with crossing that line, from his support of new traffic enforcement cameras, to raiding the Wisner Trust, to his support of unconstitutional laws aimed at “cleaning up” the French Quarter for tourists in advance of revenue-generating events.  It’s all about securing revenue streams; nothing else seems to be a priority.

There’s a famous quote from the Vietnam War, supposedly uttered by an American major following the shelling of a South Vietnamese village, that “[w]e found it necessary destroy the village in order to save it.” Though the veracity of this quote has been questioned, it nevertheless resonated with opponents of the war who felt that regardless of any good intentions we had toward  the South Vietnamese, our focus on defeating the North led us to clumsily rationalize their destruction.

New Orleans’ bottom line is important.  It’s crucial that we stay solvent, and Landrieu has been justified in making finance a high priority.  However, we shouldn’t be so singularly obsessed with the budget, so concerned with “not being Detroit,” that we ultimately destroy the heart of the city we are supposedly trying to save.  I just hope that despite his missteps, Landrieu still understands this.

Owen Courrèges, a New Orleans attorney and resident of the Garden District, offers his opinions for UptownMessenger.com on Mondays. He has previously written for the Reason Public Policy Foundation.

  7 Responses to “Owen Courreges: Is New Orleans the next Detroit? Or something else entirely?”

  1. While I’m certainly not an economic expert, I know through my job that there’s an ongoing flood of new investments by both domestic and international companies in – if not New Orleans directly – Louisiana. New Orleans (with its surroundings) is incredibly attractive to a large array of businesses (steel, chemicals, gas, …) due to its outstanding infrastructure – 6 class one railroads, the I-10 corridor, and the Mississippi River, of course. I’m not sure that’s enough to determine whether or not New Orleans will go bankrupt in the foreseeable future, but it is certainly encouraging to observe.

    • I definitely agree. My focus was more on city finances, which have admittedly improved, and will certainly be fed by increased private investment. This is all the more reason, though, why we need to be wary of over-focusing on the budget. We aren’t in a situation as dire as Detroit’s, so we should be able to find a way to balance the budget without some of the underhanded things Landrieu has pulled, or at least supported.

      • Landreiu is top heavy in crony, empty job, salaries. We could save millions there alone.
        Who can forget the joke of the “crime czar”???

        • Naunceling,

          You’re right — a 2009 study by the Inspector General showed that the mayor’s office is substantially overfunded compared with comparable cities. I know Landrieu has made some cuts to his branch, but I tend to doubt he’s cut enough. I think mayors tend to be reluctant to cut their own power, and so getting them to cut the number of employees under their direct control is always difficult. There are also institutional problems involved, though.

  2. Thumbs up!

  3. The only similarity between the cities is that they have both been run by Democrats for 50 years. Other than that, in Detroit property values are low and property taxes are high, while in New Orleans property values are high and property taxes are low. Public employee unions tried to drown New Orleans in liablilities the same way public unions in Detroit have, but here in New Orleans the public school teachers got busted rigging the payroll system during the Morial years, and the political power of public employee unions seemed wane a bit afterwards. In Detroit, a recent survey of small business owners found that fully 90% of them did not know if they were in compliance with all state and local regulations, while here in New Orleans I constantly hear amazement expressed from out of town business people at the lack of local interference in private business (I have heard this sentiment most from people from California and the north east).

  4. Some very good points. Recently, The Atlantic took a look at city financial management with Joe Flood who wrote a book called The Fires This Time which reminded me a lot about the points you made on Saving Ladder 5. I couldn’t help but notice the similarities in discussion: http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2010/05/the-fires-this-time-joe-flood-on-managing-new-york-city/56682/

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