City Ends 2013 with $8.3 Million Budget Surplus

Update 4:15pm: The article has been revised to have the correct surplus amount of $8.3 million.

At this morning’s City Council Budget Committee meeting, Chief Administrative Officer Andy Kopplin announced some good news about the City’s budget. According to the City’s Revenue Estimating Conference, the City raised $19 million more in revenue last year than budgeted. This increase was mostly due an almost 10% increase in sales tax revenue in 2013 from 2012. With the better than expected collections, the City ended 2013 with an $8.3 million budget surplus, the first of the Landrieu administration.

While these numbers are not audited, Kopplin says that he has spoken to the auditor and is confident in the figures. Kopplin said that the better than expected sale tax revenues in 2013, could have ripple effects for this year’s budget as this will likely result in an increase in revenue projections for 2014. Kopplin was not prepared to revise the 2014 revenue projection, and said that the Revenue Estimating Conference would consider that at its next meeting in August.

The $8.3 million fund balance gives the city a budget cushion for the first time in years, meaning the City has a “rainy day” fund heading into hurricane season. Budget Committee Chairperson Stacy Head questioned Andy Kopplin about sources of all the budget savings to determine if any of these funds could be spent on repairing potholes and streetlights. Kopplin said that the City is being cautious on spending, because any increase in costs for the consent decrees or in the firefighter’s pension fund means that the City would need to go back to making cuts.

There was some good news when it comes to streetlights. At tomorrow’s City Council meeting, City Council is expected to pass a budget ordinance that would allocate $14.6 million to convert streetlights to LED lights. Also at tomorrow’s meeting, Council would introduce another ordinance (it will not be adopted for another two weeks) that would allocate $1.7 million for streetlight repairs, which would cover all repairs that could not be fixed by LED conversions. Kopplin said that this money will be used to fix all of the broken streetlights along St Charles Avenue, in New Orleans East, and across the City. If City Council adopts this ordinance in two weeks, Public Works would start work as soon as July.

Also at Wednesday’s meeting the Budget Committee heard a proposal from Civil Service to offer bonuses to NOPD employees who successful recruit new police officers. NOPD employees would receive $500 when a new recruit starts the police academy and $500 when he or she starts the police force. Councilmember Head used this as an opportunity to criticize some of the requirements for new police recruits saying that potential officers are being turned away by Civil Service because they use marijuana decades ago. “A history of longterm dependency is very different than trial usage in college or high school” Head said. The Budget Committee did not take action on this proposal, because they are waiting on an ethics opinion from the Attorney General’s Office.

 

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New Orleans Master Plan and the Force of Law Myth

Today, I was reading an article in The Advocate on the Louisiana Landmarks Society placing the New Orleans Master Plan on its 2014 New Orleans’ Nine Most Endangered list. It was not supposed to be the case that the Master Plan would be such a weak document. In 2008, New Orleans voters approved a City Charter Change that would require the City to adopt a Master Plan with the “force of law.” When City Council adopted the Master Plan in 2010, everyone hailed it as a great accomplish that will end planning by surprise in New Orleans. So, has this happened? Is the Master Plan in danger or endangering historic properties? What does it mean that the Master Plan has the force of law, has it done anything to end planning by surprise?

The Force of Law is portion of the Charter Change that is supposed to give the Master Plan some weight. Many plans sit on the shelf collecting dust because they do not have funds to implement them and they have no legal authority. The Force of Law gives the Master Plan the legal authority that it needs and decisions around zoning changes are supposed to be consistent with the Master Plan. But is this really happening?

Yes and No. City Council makes the final decision when it comes to zoning changes. Are their decisions are not always consistent with the Master Plan. City Council members often make decisions for political reasons without much regard for what the Master Plan says. City Council members will certainly cite the Master Plan when it supports their decision, but they have ignored the Master Plan when it is not consistent with what they want to do.

Here is one example of City Council ignoring the Master Plan. On October 4, 2012, City Council voted to change the zoning of a property at 4321 Paris Avenue for Neighborhood Business (B-1) to Single-Family Residential (RS-2). Councilmember Hedge-Morrell, responding to constituent concerns that a problem corner store may reopen, sought to rezone this property from business to single-family resident. The problem was that the Master Plan designated this area for neighborhood commercial, so rezoning the violated (or at least was inconsistent with) the Master Plan.

If the Master Plan has the force of law, then how could this happen? It is because so far there has not been anyone to hold City Council accountable for their votes. Given the doctrine of balance of power and divided branches of government, it is up to the judicial branch to hold the legislative branch accountable. This has not happened yet, because no one has brought a case to the courts to challenge a City Council decision based on the Master Plan. If the property owner of 4321 Paris Avenue sued the City for the loss in land value due to rezoning his property from commercial to residential that was inconsistent with the Master Plan, I would think that he would have an open and shut case against the City.

I am not encouraging people to sue the City, because ultimately it would cost all of us New Orleans tax payers. Something needs to be done to hold the City Council accountable for its decisions that violate the Master Plan, or City Council will continue to disregard the Master Plan’s force of law. So a lawsuit against the City might be the only option. The Louisiana Landmarks Society’s call that the Master Plan is endangering history properties and neighborhoods, seems like a sound argument to me. As long as City Council sees the Master Plan as a recommendation and not a legal requirement, we will never end planning by surprise and have the protection we need for our historic neighborhoods in New Orleans.

City Council Budget Committee Meeting – May 29, 2014

The Politics of and Politicians on the City’s Boards and Commissions

At Today’s City Council Meeting (May 22, 2014), there will be a number of appointments to various City boards and commissions. The Mayor’s Sewerage and Water Board (S&WB) appointments are attracting the most attention, but these are not the only high profile appointments on City Council’s agenda. In Motion No. M-14-204, City Council will appoint its own members to various Boards and Commissions around town.

The high-profile reforms at the S&WB were all about “taking politics out of the appointments.” While I do appreciate that new Sewerage and Water Board members now need to meet certain professional requirements, I think it is naive to say that politics have been removed. Many of the board and commission members across the City were selected because they are long-time political supporters of the Mayor or Councilmember who appoints them. Even if they are not a long-time political supporter, they are often pressured by political lobbying to take a certain position on an issue. If this was not happening, how else can you explain that the Mayor’s Office scripted NORD Commission meetings; top-Mayoral aides Jeff Hebert and Cedric Grant were selected to lead NORA and the S&WB?

So what does it mean that all of these Councilmembers being appointed to the Boards of these different organizations? Politicians are certainly going to act in their political best interest, so there is no real perception that their role is non-political like there is with some other board members. At the same time, this is another source of power for the City Councilmembers. Some of these Boards have tremendous power, like the Board of Liquidation, City Debt which is responsible for issuing bonds on behalf of the City.

City Councilmembers are appointed to 18 different boards and commission, some based on their position as the At-Large Councilmember or the Councilmember that represents the district where the board is located. Others appear to be appointed to the position based on either seniority or because they are the chair of the committee that has expertise in the area (Chair of the Criminal Justice Committee Susan Guidry will be appointed to the Criminal Justice Council as an example).

The distribution of these appointments is far from being equal. The At-Large members have the most appointments as Jason Williams has 9 and Stacy Head has 8. The Councilmembers for Districts A, B, and C are in the middle with 5 appointments for Susan Guidry, and 4 appointments each for LaToya Cantrell and Nadine Ramsey. Trailing in the appointments is Councilmembers Brossett and Gray who only have one appointment each. In the Motion there is a breakdown by board and commission, but here is the breakdown of by City Councilmember:

Stacy Head, At-Large Criminal Justice CouncilNew Orleans Tourism Marketing Corporation (2014 and 2016)

Revenue Estimating Conference

Canal Street Development Corporation

Board of Liquidation, City Debt

Board of City Trust (while serving as Council President)

Regional Planning Commission

New Orleans Building Corporation

Jason Williams, At-Large Criminal Justice CouncilNew Orleans Tourism Marketing Corporation (2015 and 2016)

City Park Improvement Association

Louisiana Police Jury Association

NOLA Business Alliance

Board of Liquidation, City Debt

Board of City Trust (while serving as Council President)

Regional Planning Commission

New Orleans Building Corporation

Susan Guidry, District A Board of the New Orleans Museum of ArtMunicipal Yacht Harbor Corporation

Criminal Justice Council

New Orleans Children and Youth Planning Board

City Park Improvement Association

LaToya Cantrell, District B New Orleans Tourism Marketing CorporationBoard of Directors of the New Orleans Building Corporation

Canal Street Development Corporation

Greater New Orleans Tourist and Convention Commission

Nadine Ramsey, District C New Orleans Tourism Marketing CorporationCanal Street Development Corporation

Greater New Orleans Tourist and Convention Commission

Algiers Development District

Jared Brossett, District D Municipal Yacht Harbor Corporation
James Gray, District E New Orleans Mosquito and Termite Control Board

So what, if any, lessons are there to learn here? Certainly, not all City Council positions are created equal, at least when it comes to board and commission appointments. Also, I think that we need that boards and commissions will always be political as long as we continue to have politicians serve or appoint the people who serve on these boards and commissions. If we really do want people who are non-political and chosen for their professional expertise, then why not have local chapters of professional organizations appoint people to these boards and commissions? I would trust the local chapter of the Bar Association to pick the best lawyer and the American Institute of Architects to select a top architect more than I would any politician to do the same. Taking politicians out of the appointment process is the only way to take politics out of these boards and commissions.