Whether to freeze property-tax assessments on homes to fight gentrification or whether the New Orleans Police Department needs a new leader were among the issues debated by candidates for City Council in a Tuesday night forum.
The endorsement forum — hosted by the New Orleans Coalition, a progressive political group formed in 1967 to promote integration, historic preservation, police reform and other issues — invited candidates for all seven seats on the City Council to air their views Tuesday night at the Blake Hotel in downtown New Orleans. The coalition board invited only candidates whom they judged to fit with that mission statement, and those were Joe Giarruso, Tilman Hardy and Aylin Maklansky in District A and Jay H. Banks, Seth Bloom, Catherine Love and Timothy David Ray in District B.
The coalition moderators asked each group of candidates a different set of four questions that covered a broad spectrum of issues including economic development and infrastructure, but one constant for each set of candidates was about the council’s role fighting crime and increasing recruiting of police officers.In District B, the first candidate to get the question was Bloom, who described his seething frustration with the “dysfunction” of the city’s institutions. Bloom said he is tired of seeing officers depart NOPD for other agencies nearby — not because of their salaries, but because they no longer believe in the department’s leadership.
“We’ve got to boost morale. We’ve got to bring in someone who’s going to reorganize the entire police department from the top down,” Bloom said. “I don’t care if the person’s from here or not. We have to have someone who’s proven to compete and face off against urban violence, and that’s the biggest thing we have to deal with right now.”
Ray agreed that while police department staffing is a complicated issue, pay is certainly not the only issue. Officers don’t see a career paths ahead of them within the department, because the promotion process is not transparent to officers.
“It’s no longer based on your test score. It’s based upon whom you know,” Ray said. “That’s one thing that may attract them to other parishes.”
Banks also agreed that pay is no longer the primary issue for police retention. Officers are frustrated that too many decisions are made based on statistics, rather than on officers’ experience and discretion, he said.
“A national search for a new police chief is critical,” Banks said. “Whether or not someone locally bubbles up to the top really doesn’t matter, but it needs to be a police professional.”
Love also said she would focus more on retention than new recruitment, and prevent officers from being assigned to desk duty based on the most minor of complaints.
“We live in a complaint-driven police force,” Love said. “They are handcuffed and they can’t do their jobs. They’re leaving because they can’t stand to work in this environment.”
The District A candidates focused more on the broader role of the council governing the department, rather than the specific culture within it.
Hardy said he would seek out “untapped potential” for growing the police department’s resources in neighborhoods. A culture of community policing would allow police to be better engage with residents. He would also increase funding to the mediation programs like Peacekeepers and CeaseFire, he said.
“The Peacekeepers have worked on a very limited budget to mitigate violence in our city, and I believe they should be supported more,” Hardy said.
Giarrusso said he would hope to serve on the City Council’s budget committee, because that’s where the Council can act as the best check on the mayor’s office. The budget has already increased, and that money should go to public safety, and the next council should look at properties not being taxed and sales tax not being collected.
Areas of particular concern in the NOPD, Giarrusso said, are the low staffing of the domestic-violence and homicide units.
“The national clearance rate is 64 percent for murder, but here in New Orleans, we’re only 18 to 22 percent,” Giarrusso said.
Like the District B candidates, Maklansky noted that NOPD pay rates are now similar to those in other cities, and the Council should keep it that way. Many officers complain about the Office of Secondary Employment that governs their overtime work, and she would investigate whether that office could be reorganized to create savings that could be passed on to officers.
“They do have quite a large budget, and they may not be providing the service that’s necessary,” Maklansky said.
Unlike Giarrusso, Maklansky said she would not try to find extra revenue from property taxes on land owned by nonprofits.
Gentrification and property taxes
The coalition also asked District B candidates how the City Council could help prevent rising property values from forcing long-time property owners out of their homes.
Banks proposed freezing property assessments for homes at their pre-Katrina values. That way, longtime homeowners won’t be affected by the increasing values around them, but if they sell their property or take out a new mortgage on it, then it would be reassessed at a current market value.
“It’s a wonderful, great thing that there’s all this newfound interest in Uptown,” Banks said, describing a home across from his mother that recently sold for $450,000. “But those other neighbors, their incomes didn’t increase to be able to afford those new taxes. … Don’t penalize those generational homeowners who have been here for decades because somebody who had more wealth was able to build something across the state.”
Ray — who had introduced himself as a policy-oriented candidate — praised Banks’ idea as a “common-sense approach” to slowing the effects of gentrification. After hearing Banks propose it at a previous forum, he investigated it, and assessor’s office told him it’s a change that would have to be authorized by the state legislature.
In the meantime, Ray said, the council already has a neighborhood-stabilization fund that can help residents stay in their homes, and it can also promote bringing more Housing Authority properties back to serve lower-income residents.
Bloom described the property-tax freeze as a creative idea, and said the city needs more of them. Elderly homeowners should also receive a similar freeze at an earlier age, he said. At the same time, Bloom said the city should target the absentee landlords who also play a big role in the problem, while maintaining the authenticity of the city through historic preservation.
“We have to make sure that we keep our housing stock and everything comports,” Bloom said. “We have to comport development with neighborhood associations.”
Love said she’s seen the process of gentrification firsthand. She bought her Lower Garden District home when it was surrounded by blight, but it has since developed dramatically. New Orleans has a long history of high levels of black homeownership, and it should protect that legacy, she said.
“I don’t have all the answers,” Love said. “But I know who the stakeholders are, and it’s a conversation that needs to be had as a community.”
The city has also been debating the creation of a rental registry, and the coalition asked the District B candidates whether they supported it and annual inspections for landlords.
Bloom said he is concerned about over-regulating private rentals, and suggested that the city of New Orleans doesn’t have the capacity to add so many inspectors fairly. Ultimately, issues of public safety, infrastructure and education are all more important priorities, he said.
“I think an inspector going to each piece of rental property every year is ridiculous,” Bloom said.
Love said the idea of the registry is well intended, but the actual plan does nothing for the renters. All it does is create an additional tax on property owners. She supports an effort to ensure safe housing, she said, but this plan would only make renters think they have protection that doesn’t really exist. Code enforcement is already not doing its job, she said.
“If you actually read the registry, it does nothing to protect the renters,” Love said. “It’s all a facade.”
Like Love, Banks said he was “100 percent in support of people having clean, safe, affordable housing,” but he expressed concern in the rental registry as it has been proposed. It doesn’t protect the renters from retaliation, and it doesn’t have enough teeth for bad landlords.
“There are holes in it as it is,” Banks said. “Is it a work in progress we can try to tweak? I would support that. But the way it’s written today, I would have some real challenges.”
In contrast, Ray offered his support for the registry, likening it to basic regulation to ensure public safety. He would not levy a fee on all landlords, however; only those who violate the rental code should have to pay, Ray said.
“We regulate how food is prepared and served. We regulate building codes. We regulate whether your automobile is safe to be on our streets,” Ray said. “We need to ensure our housing is safe.”
The Coalition announced Wednesday morning that it had endorsed Giarrusso in District A, Ray in District B, Kristin Palmer in District C, Jared Brossett in District D, James Gray in District E, and Helena Moreno and Jason Williams for the two At-Large seats.
To read our live coverage of the City Council forum, see below.