The city of New Orleans, flush with federal pandemic aid dollars, is in the midst of a spending spree to replace its aging vehicle fleet.
So far this year, the city has spent $50 million in federal pandemic relief aid to buy 791 vehicles. But it appears that almost all of those purchases violate a city law that mandates low emissions for city-owned vehicles.
The “clean fleet” ordinance, which the City Council approved last year, requires the city to stop buying gas-powered vehicles altogether in 2025. But the law also stipulates that starting in 2023, newly purchased city vehicles have to at least follow the same low-emissions standards required for the federal government as part of the 2007 Energy Independence and Security Act.
Mayor LaToya Cantrell recently released a list of 2023 vehicle purchases. An analysis by Verite didn’t identify a single car model that met those emissions standards.
Some of the listed vehicles don’t have the specific model number necessary to look up their emissions on the federal government’s emissions database, including “15 passenger vans” and “ambulances.” But of the 686 vehicles that do provide model information, none of them appear to meet the city’s standards.
Many of the vehicles don’t even come close to meeting the standard, including SUVs with emissions two or three times higher than the threshold.
“Most concerning here is that not only are all of the vehicles gas, they’re guzzlers,” Logan Burke, executive director of the Alliance for Affordable Energy, told Verite.
The “clean fleet” ordinance does allow the city’s Chief Administrative Officer, Gilbert Montaño, to grant exceptions. But the law says that “exemptions are disfavored and may only be approved on a case-by-case basis.” It also requires Montaño to provide a written explanation for each exemption that provides “a substantial public-safety justification.”
A written statement from Cantrell’s office on Thursday (June 1) said that Montaño “has exercised his discretion to grant exemptions from the cited standard when appropriate.” But the city did not respond to a request to provide copies of those exemptions by the time of publication.
In the statement, Cantrell’s office said the high-emission vehicles were necessary due to “supply chain challenges” and because “unfortunately, currently available vehicles that meet the cited standard are not effective for every job.”
“The age and functionality of the current fleet impacts the effectiveness of City services and carries a significant financial burden,” the statement said. “As the vehicle designs improve and the marketplace recovers from its challenges, the City will purchase vehicles that meet the cited standard. … But the City will not risk the safety of City employees and the public in order to meet a standard that vehicle manufacturers have been unable to keep up with thus far.”
The majority of the vehicles, 512 out of 791, went to the New Orleans Police Department. NOPD Superintendent Michelle Woodfork said in April that she planned to use vehicles to offer take-home cars for every NOPD officer. The rest of the money was spread over 29 other departments, including the Department of Safety and Permits, the Fire Department, the District Attorney’s Office, the Mayor’s Office and the New Orleans Public Library.
Burke said that even if Montaño did issue a formal exception for each of the vehicles, and the administration didn’t violate the law, it was still a mistake to upgrade the city’s fleet with the same high-emissions vehicles it’s always relied on.
“If municipalities like New Orleans pass policies intended to take climate action and act as a role model for people and businesses, it is vital that they follow their own rules,” Burke said. “Otherwise policies wind up as performance and handwaving, and that’s how people lose confidence in their government.”
When the clean fleet ordinance was introduced by Councilwoman Helena Moreno last year, she said the fleet transition was a vital step for a city so vulnerable to the impacts of climate change.
Cantrell has framed herself as a leader on climate. She recently returned from a climate conference in South Korea, where, her office said in a press release, she was the only mayor in attendance.
“We expect the Administration to understand and follow the law,” Moreno said in a statement on Wednesday. “Climate leadership requires execution, not just rhetoric. I need to know why they failed to follow the law.”
Moreno and experts acknowledged from the start that transitioning the city’s hundreds of vehicles to a low-emission fleet would cost money, and that they would likely need federal funds to help make that happen. And at the beginning of this year, when the new threshold went into effect, the city happened to be sitting on hundreds of millions of dollars in unallocated pandemic aid and surplus money.
Burke’s frustration over the new vehicle purchases is a sentiment shared by many local advocates and residents over the federal funds, the feeling that the city missed a rare golden opportunity to fund transformational projects, and instead doubled down on what it’s already doing.
“This specific example of the cars is a symptom of the problem — the failure to make these dollars and spending decisions align with community priorities,” said Cashauna Hill, executive director of the Louisiana Fair Housing Action Center.
‘The administration needs to make this all make sense’
This is not the first time Cantrell has been criticized for how the city has used $388 million in federal pandemic relief aid it began receiving in mid-2021.
As 2022 was winding down, it became clear that the city hadn’t spent almost any of the money. The big question was how the city should spend the unexpected windfall.
The administration told residents that there would be a public process to determine how to spend it. But that never happened, advocates said.
Over the past six months, the administration and council quickly appropriated the vast majority of the money. Although all the cash was formally allocated in public council votes, residents, advocates and good government watchdogs have said the process has been last-minute, non-transparent and unaccountable.
“The issue here is that what’s happening is that the administration has gone out of its way to avoid having a transparent conversation about what they’re choosing to spend money on and why,” Hill said.
Hill and other advocates say they were pushed to the side, and that since almost all the money has been allocated, it may be too late. Hill was particularly adamant about the high level of federal funds Cantrell spent on the police, including the recent vehicle purchases.
“We continue to hear that it’s so difficult to recruit and attract and retain NOPD officers,” Hill said. “Yet we’re continuing to spend millions of dollars on vehicles for these nonexistent police officers to take home. The administration needs to make this all make sense. And so far they have refused to do that.”
The NOPD has seen a big drop in its ranks in the past few years, at the same time that the city, and most of the country, experienced a rise in some violent crimes. Much of the ARPA funds have been dedicated to fixing that staffing problem at the NOPD, including a multimillion-dollar retention and recruitment package.
Take-home vehicles for officers was also a recruiting recommendation provided by former New York police officers the city hired as consultants last year.
Looking at the city’s official allocations, it’s difficult to tell exactly how much was spent on the NOPD. For example, $1.5 million for a new facility for NOPD’s police dogs and horses was officially marked as a transfer of funds from the City Council to the Chief Administrative Office. It’s also unclear how much of a $30 million criminal justice IT overhaul will go directly to the police.
According to a city dashboard, of the first $141 million of federal pandemic funds the city appropriated to special projects, 62% went to “public safety.”
“I’m not aware of the exact amount [spent on NOPD], my guess would be that it’s the majority.” Hill said. “They are clearly showing us what their actual priorities are. … It seems like this administration has fully decided that giving more money to the NOPD is the way we’re going to address what they’re calling a historic crime wave.”
Hill said that once again, government officials are failing to take a holistic approach to the community’s problems, failing to see the connections between safety and housing and education and transportation.
“It’s such a short-sighted plan,” Hill said. “Because it fails once again to address the actual needs of community members, and instead gives into fear and continues to pad the budget of the NOPD, which has not helped us.”
Note: This story was updated on Wednesday to include a comment from City Councilwoman Helena Moreno and on Thursday to include a statement from Mayor LaToya Cantrell’s office.
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