There's a trend among U.S. cities to lean more and more on philanthropists to fund city services, and New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu has been in the vanguard of the movement, according to an article in Governing, a magazine dedicated to state and local policy and politicsThe article is about the Bloomberg model of taking city services out of the public decision-making sphere where elected representatives allocate a budget and relying instead on the interest of wealthy investors to determine your priorities.
As the field of city foundation partnerships evolves, says Albert Ruesga, CEO of the Greater New Orleans Foundation, mayors should be wary of relationships that erode democratic decision-making. “Cities have the power to levy taxes,” Ruesga says. “I don’t think it’s healthy for cities to forgo levying taxes for central public services and goods, thinking that they might get that money from private sources. There’s a price to civilization and we need to be willing to pay that price in our taxes.”In effect, what they're doing is privatizing the most essential function of governing. As more of your budget is shaped by grants, your democratic representatives become less relevant. It also gives them fewer tough decisions to make so, of course, they love that.
Landrieu, however, thinks he’s reached a point where he can justify using public money to pay not just for the projects started by the Bloomberg innovation team, but also for the team itself. Last year, the city spent $300,000 on team activities, about a quarter of their annual cost. (All cities had to match a third of the Bloomberg grant.)Oh see there is still a use for your tax money. Landrieu thinks it's time to start using that to pay the "innovation team" directly. You don't get to vote for them but they will be making more decisions about how to manage the private grants that will pay for your streets and parks and police task forces. Until that money runs out and you're suddenly paying higher fees and special sales taxes just to keep up.
“You don’t even have to sell it to the city council. They want you to do more of it,” Landrieu says. The challenge is making sure the city has room in the budget for a new service, but he seems committed to doing that. “When the philanthropic money runs out, you’ve got to grow your economy or raise your fees or cut in other ways to pay for that service.” The reason he’s willing to make room in the budget isn’t just the impressive results so far, but the method that made them happen. The innovation model, he says, has the potential to address any number of other problems the city still needs to tackle.
Maybe you don't think that's fair. But, honestly, if you can't afford to join any of the philanthropic societies and dinner clubs who make all the decisions in this town, you probably don't belong here at all anymore. I think that's the message they're trying to send, anyway.