Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Budget Brawl Begins in "B"

Budgeting for Outcomes

Just when we thought we'd examined every possible negative effect of the cutbacks at the Times-Picayune, Monday evening's events have brought yet another concern to our attention. It turns out they may have fired the person responsible for writing the article we see about this time every year about how the hot weather makes everyone in the city angry and so drives up the violent crime rate. For whatever reason this year's version hasn't been typed up yet.

Sure it's a dumb and tired meme but that doesn't usually stop anybody from running with it. And sure, NOPD is out with this bit about "major crime" being down about 6% compared with this time last year but even that doesn't mean we couldn't get away with one article blaming the weather for a slightly higher number of murders during the second quarter.  Statistics are highly manipulable. Just ask Ronal Serpas.

Still we do not find our annual warning about the "mean season" in the Times-Picayune this summer. This may have been a mistake.  Without our reminder that the hot weather makes us cranky, how can we be expected to be on guard against unseemly loss of temper?

This becomes especially important as the Mayor begins hosting his yearly series of community hearings on city budget priorities. This is always a contentious process but figures to be especially tense this year as the city finds itself burdened with the costs of reforms to the police department and parish prison imposed by federal consent decrees, an ongoing fight over the city's handling of the firefighter's pension fund, an expected request for a hike in utility bills, as well as the usual set of fits and arguments over an ever shrinking pool of municipal funds.  Tempers are certain to be short already.  It would be a shame if anyone let the weather get the better of them.

This is one reason why holding the initial (District B) meeting at the Jewish Community Center seemed like a pretty good idea.  After all, the site of one of Uptown's more popular swimming pools should have had the folks in the mood to be cool.  And for a while, at least, they seemed ready to do just that.   A large crowd... maybe 200 or so... fit into the auditorium in relative comfort.  They were greeted by Deputy Mayors Judy Reese Morse and Andy Kopplin and then by interim District B Councilwoman Diana Bajoie who spoke glowingly for a few minutes about various projects underway or recently completed in the district.  A slideshow featuring photos and captions of these played on the screen behind her rendering her comments unnecessary.  The slides continued to cycle throughout the evening.  Jackie Clarkson's presence was acknowledged but, improbable as this seems, she did not ask to speak.

The format for these things is simple enough. Attendees wishing to speak hand in comment cards at the beginning of the evening.  While that gets organized, the hosting city officials spend about 20 minutes or so introducing and congratulating one another. Then the mayor gives a brief monologue.  Mitch's, rather ominously, centered on the fact that cities around the country are facing tough times and tough decisions with regard to their budgets.  It was clear that he wants to start this process with expectations as low as he can have them.  He did manage to reassure the crowd that he is looking forward to having "robust discussions on the theory of government" with us, which really is also pretty ominous when you think about it... right down to his choice of the word "robust."

Once those niceties are done with, the floor is open to the public.  Those who turned in comment cards are called upon one by one and given a maximum of two minutes each to speak.  For most attendees, this seemed an adequate and fair allotment of time.  More on that in a minute.

The concerns raised by the public weren't too surprising.  By my semi-precise count, the comments centered around the following issues in roughly the order of their comment frequency.

  • Blighted properties/overgrown lots

  • Streets and drainage

  • Mental health services

  • 311/City customer service issues

  • Senior services

  • Property tax assessments

  • Historic preservation

  • Fire Department response time

  • Crime cameras/traffic cameras

In addition to the above, attorney Mary Howell asked about the conditions at Orleans Parish Prison and the possible impact of a coming federal consent decree mandating reforms.  Big Chief Larry Bannock asked if Gert Town specifically, which he says is "going to hell in a bucket" was being neglected.  In fact, a couple of speakers asked about Gert Town in particular. Firefighters union president Nick Felton confronted the Mayor directly regarding the firefighters' several complaints. (WWLTV's account of the evening focused on this issue.) A Patricia Morris raised some interesting questions about the city's "budgeting for outcomes" process implying that the focus on minute measurable "outcomes" such as the number of potholes filled or catch basins cleared is a statistical dodge away from the question of whether the whole street or drain is actually being well maintained.

And then Sandra Wheeler Hester's turn came up. Ms Hester is well known for frequent commentary at various public forums like this one. When her name was announced, a rumble of anticipation went through the crowd.  It was clear that nearly everyone in the room knew what to expect from her.  And this makes their reaction all the more puzzling.

Ms. Hester began her remarks with a complaint about the two minute time limit.  This isn't surprising. Hester has been involved in a well publicized feud with the city over its attempts to limit her participation in City Council meetings so pushing the boundaries of the format has kind of become a pet project of hers.  The best response is usually just to let her make her comment and move on.  She has as much right to be heard as anyone else attending the open forum. Even if she ends up going a little over time, it's in everyone's interest (including hers) to let her take the air out of her own balloon.

Unfortunately the Mayor did the opposite of that.  Before Hester could even get going, Mitch interrupted her to address the crowd. As the slideshow behind him scrolled through photos of the recent Claiborne Towers implosion, Mitch spoke to the room. "Remember this is your meeting," he said, "Ms Hester can stay as long as she wants to afterwards but this is your time right now"  The Mayor's remarks were basically an invitation to the crowd to police Ms. Hester however they saw fit.  They eagerly took him up on this booing and heckling her.  Of course this behavior could only manage to egg her on.

So, predictably, instead of just moving on to her comments, Hester took on the audience's challenge. When she said something along the lines of, "I've had about enough of this foolishness," a woman in the crowd later identified as Uptown house flipper Jane Murdock leaped to her feet and shouted back, "And we have had about enough of you!" This led to more rabble-rabble from the crowd and more cross talk between Hester and Murdock who, for a moment, shifted into Spanish.  The last intelligible line from that exchange was  Hester suggesting that Murdock "Go back to Cuba and let Castro deal with you!"

It was pretty much downhill from there.  The crowd continued to boo and hiss.  Hester proceeded to call them racists, and "honkies" until 7 or 8 of the many many uniformed NOPD present surrounded her and began negotiating her exit. 

Sandra Hester and the police

This took quite a bit of time.  Meanwhile the meeting continued to move right along.  Commenters droned on courageously about their catch basins and their senior centers while Hester and the police stood in the middle of the room arguing.  For what it's worth, I took some shaky video of the scene just before  Hester was eventually led away in handcuffs. 

None of this had been necessary.  Had the Mayor perhaps asked the crowd to exhibit a little patience instead of giving them a green light to antagonize Hester, this scene would likely have been averted. Despite his culpability, Mitch took a moment afterward to lecture the rest of us about the importance of courtesy before we moved on.

Notable comments followed from former mayoral candidate and sometime negligent landlord, Sonja "Lady" Dedais who complained (in a roundabout way) that her property taxes are too high. Later, activist Deidre Lewis wondered about the lack of opportunities for young people in District B.  Her precise remark was that the non-profit training restaurant Cafe Reconcile is, in fact, "teaching black children how to be slaves."

Now that's pretty hyperbolic language but the point that a pipeline that conducts kids from poor neighborhoods into demeaning, low paying, low benefit service industry careers is essentially correct. Unfortunately the already riled up crowd was not in the mood to consider the nuance and resumed catcalling. Lewis went on to say a few more things about Gert Town before noting that Ye Olde College Inn "looks like a Klan meeting going on in there"  Again, strong language... yet with a nugget of truth, however irrelevant in this case.

Soon it was the Mayor's turn to speak again.  His first order of business was to run Lewis out of the room by asking her to stop talking over him.  Mitch often employs the phrase "One Voice, One City" as a favorite slogan so that shouldn't have surprised anyone.  An exasperated Lewis said something about not wanting to sit around and listen to lies and marched off in a huff.  She was spotted again later just outside the building holding a hand made sign that read "NOPD domestic terrorists" for the benefit of anyone exiting the meeting.

As for the attendees who weren't expelled from the room, they can't have taken too much comfort from the Mayor's response to their comments. Mitch returned to his earlier news from abroad about the sorry state of city budgets.  He stressed the national political climate where conservatives are "questioning the benefits given to public employees" such as the firefighters' pensions.  At one point he went so far as to say that because he is a Democrat he is "under a special obligation," to question every dime spent on public services and the people who provide them demonstrating once again why Democrats are so terrible at actually representing the interests their nominal constituents.  "The firefighters think you owe them 150 million dollars," Mitch told the room.  He meant the firefighters and also the Louisiana State Supreme Court, of course, although he somehow failed to word it quite that way.

The Mayor continued in this vein pointing out that the "cavalry is not coming" with regard to state and federal aid to cities.  The "stagnant" US Congress and the ideologically intransigent Jindal Administration have been particularly tight.  This means the city will have to find ways to cope with costs of implementing consent decree mandated reforms at NOPD and OPP without the benefit of federal funding.  He explicitly stated he expects these costs to win out over the needs of senior centers or street repairs, especially "interior" (not major throughfare) streets about which he told us we should "get used to complaining."

In response to the several concerns about Gert Town, he pointed out the forthcoming Costco store as well as the conversion of the Blue Plate Mayonnaise manufacturary into "artists lofts." It's difficult to imagine either of these points of light amounting to much comfort for the attendees who asked about that neighborhood.

Mitch addressed complaints about our various municipal cameras.  People are unhappy that the crime cameras don't work and that the traffic cameras do.  While he affected a sympathetic frustration with the traffic cameras, "I hate that damn camera on Washington and St. Charles," he went on to say, not only that he supports them, but also that a silent majority of citizens have requested their installation.

As to the crime cameras, he said he believes it is more cost effective for private citizens to install as many of their own cameras as possible and share whatever they film with the police. Or, as Marge Simpson once said, "You know, the courts may not be working any more, but as long as everyone is videotaping everyone else, justice will be done."

This morning the Greater New Orleans Community Data Center released this "Assets and Opportunity Profile" for New Orleans.

Among New Orleans families, 23% live in poverty, with African America families experiencing poverty at much higher rates (30%) than white families (8%).

Beyond traditional poverty rates, this report looks at the extent to which families have sufficient savings to support themselves for a short time should they suddenly lose their income. Asset poverty rates indicate the percent of households that do not have enough assets (specifically net worth) to survive at the poverty level for three months without income. In total, 37% of New Orleans households are asset poor.

Although black and Latino households are more likely to be asset poor in New Orleans, asset poverty spans race categories with 50% of black households, 40% of Latino households, 24% of Asian households, and 22% of white households living in asset poverty in New Orleans.

Households with lower levels of education are more likely to be asset poor, but too many households with college degrees also have insufficient savings. In fact, 22% of New Orleans households with at least a bachelor’s degree do not have sufficient net worth to sustain themselves at a poverty level for three months should they lose their income. Thus, even middle-income families face asset poverty. For example, 28% of New Orleans households earning between $45,655 and $70,014 are asset poor. 

Those numbers tell us a couple of things right off the bat.  For one they tell us just how tenuous are the finances of a great number of the city's households, even among those whose incomes we might consider solidly "middle class." While the racial breakdown reminds us that, despite her over-the-top shouting about New Orleans being a "tale of two cities" last night, Sandra Hester was actually trying to articulate some very real and serious frustrations.

Unfortunately the Mayor wasn't in the mood to have those particular frustrations expressed. Instead he focused his efforts on preparing New Orleanians to "get used to complaining" since the "cavalry is not coming" any time soon.  In the evening's most staggering moment, he even suggested that he is considering a plan to penalize property owners who are late paying their sanitation fees by shutting off their water.  Some people in the audience even indicated their support for such a measure.  Likely these were not renters at risk of losing their water should their landlord happen to miss a payment or two.
It's a shame that Mayor Landrieu is exhibiting such a threatening and austere posture toward an increasingly desperate city at the onset of the difficult budgeting process. Of course it could be there's nothing else he can do.  After all, as a Democrat, he's "under a special obligation" to make sure the poor swallow their medicine without too much unsightly complaining. Maybe he'll be in a better mood once the summer is over.

Note: Also see Uptown Messenger's account of this meeting.  Much more thorough than what I was able to relate here. And a thousand times more useful than the T-P's unhelpful focus on the Hester sideshow in this morning's edition.

1 comment:

Brad said...

Excellent reporting -- Thank you.

Mayor Landrieu needs to apologize for inciting the bigotry expressed against Ms. Hester. The fact is that she wasn't afforded the opportunity to express her comments uninterrupted for two minutes. No wonder she protested.