Monday, August 06, 2018

Are they gonna have the yelling-at-mayors tour?

We're coming up on budget season. And, from the looks of things, this is going to be a tough one. 
After a banner year of New Orleans City Hall revenue collections that includes a larger-than-usual number of one-time payments, city officials are bracing for 2019 and beyond as they look to manage tightening budgets as one-time revenues decline.
Back during the mayoral campaign, both candidates talked about how the WTC lease was going to solve a lot of these problems for us.  It figured prominently in Charbonnet's housing plan and in Cantrell's drainage proposals.  In each of those cases, though, the candidates appeared to be figuring in projected annual revenues. What nobody was talking about at the time was the problem Mitch had left them when he paid for NOPD raises out of the one-time advance payment.
One-time revenues can come in many forms, but one example is the redevelopment of the World Trade Center, which will generate an expected $33 million in advance lease payments in 2018. Some of that money is being used to fund the police department raises, but that money goes away in 2019.

The disappearance of one-time payments, and the headaches they could cause in the 2019 budget year, have already been discussed by Cantrell and her administrative team. During a meeting with NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune in June, Cantrell described the one-time payments as causing a "structural deficit" which was projected at about $3.6 million in NOPD's budget.
This plus a combination of other factors like the possible hit from shutting down the traffic cameras and anxiety over how the "Trump Trade Wars" might affect port business, could make for a tighter fiscal situation.   So this would be a good time to fire up the old public input machine and get a sense of people's priorities.

But that's not really happening right now. At least not yet. Mitch used to do a series of town halls in each council district designed to compile public comments and answer questions about prioritie for the upcoming budget cycle. The actual impact of these meetings on the mayor's budget proposal was likely negligible, but the meetings were a pretty good oppotunity to get a sense of what was on people's minds.  They also made for pretty good entertainment on occassion.  Because they would have taken place in the middle of election season last year, Mitch decided to put them on hold.  At this time it doesn't appear as though LaToya is too keen to bring them back. We really can't fault her if Cantrell decides to shelve the meetings permanently. On balance they were probably more theater than anything else. Some of us enjoy that, of course. But it's difficult to justify carrying on with them for that purpose only.

In the meantime, we'll have to make do with the inferior gamified version of public comment.
What does your version of a city budget look like? That’s the question at the heart of the Big Easy Budget game, which offers an alternative to the city’s town hall-style approach by getting residents to fill out their ideal budgets through an online game.

The game invites residents to “play mayor for a day,” or for about 10 minutes, by selecting how the city spends its money. This year’s game arrives as Mayor LaToya Cantrell prepares her first city budget.
That's not as much fun for a bunch of reasons. For one thing, nobody gets to yell at the mayor, which we all agree was the most attractive feature of the public meetings by far.  Also, the online survey participation skews very much toward the whiter, wealthier, and more educated segment of the city which is to say it is not in any way representative.

So we're not sure how they're going to solve this.  Maybe this year is a learning budget for the Cantrell administration. Although we would think someone with LaToya's years of experience with this process from the City Council side would be ready to hit the ground running. Her office did put out this notice last week which gives us some indication of how they want to run things. The executive order it announces asks for more frequent revenue estimation and requires the CAO to put out monthly budget updates next year.  Maybe those will be ready if and when they bring the public meetings back.

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