Mayor LaToya Cantrell at a press conference on Jan. 11, 2023. Credit: Michael Isaac Stein/Verite

New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell is kicking off a series of community meetings this week to help guide the administration as it begins to draft the city’s roughly billion dollar plus budget for 2024. The meetings — which have been held most years either in-person or as call-in “listening sessions” since former Mayor Mitch Landrieu started the tradition in 2010 — are pitched as a way to add transparency and community input to an often opaque city budget process. But already some community members are questioning whether their voices will actually be heard.

The Cantrell administration and the City Council have more than four months to pass a 2024 budget. But as the city begins the community engagement meetings, much of the work toward getting there is already well in process. By this point in the year, city departments are typically working on their budget requests, which are submitted to city Chief Administrative Officer Gilbert Montaño for review. 

Community advocacy groups focused on housing, criminal justice, and civic engagement have consistently complained in recent years about the lack of clarity and community input in city budgeting in the budget process, particularly when it came to the allocation of the nearly $400 million in federal COVID relief aid provided to the city in 2021 and 2022 through the American Rescue Plan Act. And they said that’s all the more reason that residents should show up to these meetings and make their voices heard. 

“There were community engagement meetings last year…but community requests weren’t reflected there,” Sarah Omojola, Associate Director of the Vera Institute of Justice Louisiana office, told Verite. “I hope that these community meetings are actually reciprocal, I hope that the administration and council actually hear what people want and need. And those needs are taken into consideration when the budget is put together, not just more of the same.”

Vera was one of a number of groups that earlier this year appealed to the city to invest more than $100 million in unspent ARPA and city reserve fund dollars on affordable housing, youth programming and “community equity” programs, including a proposed pilot to offer free public transit for residents. In a process that was criticized for lacking transparency, the Cantrell administration and the council ultimately decided to spend the money on other priorities, including tens of millions to purchase new city vehicles

“The people who actually provide the money for this budget, you know, the taxpayers and residents actually should be able to understand exactly what the money…is going to pay for,” Omojola said. 

Beginning on Tuesday (July 25) at McDonogh 35 High School, the community budget meetings will start at 5 p.m. on five evenings throughout all City Council districts over the next two weeks. 

  • District D, July 25: McDonogh 35 High School
  • District B, July 27: Warren Easton Charter High School
  • District C, Aug. 1: Martin Behrman Charter School
  • District A, Aug. 3: Esperanza Academy Middle School (Dunbar Building)
  • District E, Aug. 7: Martin Luther King Jr. High School

The Cantrell administration says it will use information gathered from the meetings to help write a draft 2024 budget, which the mayor is required by law to deliver to the City Council by Nov. 1. The City Council has final say over the budget, and can make changes to Cantrell’s proposed draft before voting to approve it. The council has to pass a final budget by Dec. 1.

New Orleans City Hall. Credit: Michael Isaac Stein / Verite

‘A moral document’

“The budget is a moral document,” Executive Director of the Committee for a Better New Orleans Nellie Catzen said in an interview. “It says what we care about and how much. … It’s the reason why anything happens or doesn’t happen. If we’re going to achieve our goals as a city, we have to resource those goals.”

The sheer importance of the budget has led organizations like CBNO to mobilize around budget advocacy, but community organizers have been disappointed with city spending in recent years. Catzen critiqued the 2023 operational budget prioritization of policing. (The 2023 budget included a $32.5 million police recruitment and retention package, among other big-ticket criminal justice items.) 

“Obviously, public safety is of the utmost importance now as much as ever for the city, and investing in policing isn’t the only strategy the city needs to be deploying to address that,” she said.

The Committee for a Better New Orleans  has released a series of online residents budget guides, federal funding guides, and budget reports that break down the budget process in an accessible way. 

According to one of those reports, the city allocated more than half of its $736 million general fund expenses — the part of the budget paid for with locally generated revenues like taxes and fees —  in 2023 toward public safety. That includes the New Orleans Police Department (which receives the largest share), the New Orleans Fire Department, criminal courts and non-police emergency services, including the Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness, which houses much of the city’s extensive surveillance system. By contrast, 3.7 percent of the general fund expenses went toward health services and 2.3 percent went toward youth, according to the group’s analysis. 

“The city has spent so much money on law enforcement, instead of the things that would actually help the community recover from the pandemic,” Omojola said. “We’re not actually investing in what would actually help us prevent violence and address it properly.”

The ARPA debate

One major point of debate in recent years is how the city would spend $388 million in federal aid it received through the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA). When the city was first awarded the funds in 2021, the economy was still reeling from the COVID pandemic. While every city anticipated revenue losses due to the pandemic, New Orleans expected losses proportionally higher than most based on its economic reliance on tourism. 

Because of that bleak outlook, the Cantrell administration said that almost all the money would be saved to balance the city’s budget and make up for lost revenue, rather than for funding special projects. 

But city revenues were better than expected, and the city ended up spending far less than it planned in 2021 and 2022, largely due to the ongoing staffing crisis in City Hall. “There are a number of departments that don’t have enough people that admit that publicly and some of whom refuse to, even though it’s clear if they don’t have enough people,” he said. 

Some of the city’s largest and most vital departments, such as the NOPD and the Department of Safety & Permits, are facing some of their steepest staffing shortages in decades. The NOPD has so few officers now that a state pension agency now considers it to be “partially dissolved,” a situation that could force the city to pay $38 million in fines over the next 15 years to keep the police pension fund solvent. 

The loss of city employees led to savings on salaries, but there’s a cost to city services. 

Mayor LaToya Cantrell presents her proposed 2023 budget to the New Orleans City Council on Oct. 25, 2022. Credit: Charles Maldonado/Verite News

In an interview, City Councilman Joe Giarrusso described a situation where, “I can buy the lightbulb, but I can’t screw it in.” 

With nearly $400 million in pandemic funds, advocates, residents and businesses from around the city started lining up with ideas of how to spend it. 

“These funds were symbolic, in a lot of ways,” Catzen said. “They created a real opportunity to build a sort of equitable and thriving city, or at least to start to move in that direction that folks really need.”

The administration promised advocates that there would be an open, transparent process to hear from the community before allocating it. But advocates say that never happened. Between December and May, the administration allocated almost all of the money. 

That process occurred “with very little active engagement,” Catzen added. “In fact, it was really challenging for advocates and community members who cared about this money to engage with the process.” 

After the allocation of these funds, the administration used a routing system that made tracking spending extremely difficult

“It’s tough to be clear about where funds have been spent, exactly how much of the funds have been spent, and which funds remain,” Executive Director of Louisiana Fair Housing Action Center Cashauna Hill said. “The lack of clarity is something that has really been an ongoing issue throughout the budgeting of these funds.” 

Advocates not only took issue with the ARPA allocation process, but with the outcomes of these allocations, as well. According to a CBNO breakdown of the allocation, the majority of this funding went to non-police emergency services (43.6 percent), followed by policing (15.8 percent), and criminal justice (9 percent). Only 1.6 percent of the funding went toward health and 4.9 percent toward economic development.

Compared to other cities, New Orleans fell short in their use of ARPA funds to directly help residents recover from the pandemic, according to CBNO. 

Affordable housing advocates did score a win this year when the City Council injected $32 million into an affordable housing fund, including $8 million from ARPA. But that pales in comparison to the $107 million a coalition of advocates had been requesting. 

“The need for affording housing consistently ranks in the top three issues that voters want prioritized, so we should follow that our city leaders will fund the building of affordable housing,” Hill said. 

Despite disappointment about how the ARPA money has been spent so far, advocates still stress the urgency of resident participation in this year’s budget process. After the most recent major ARPA allocation in May, officials estimated that the city would have less than $50 million in one-time funds, down from a surplus many times that size last year. 

Looking ahead to the mayor’s community meetings, Catzen says she’s encouraged by the fact that the forums have been pushed to earlier in the year, but remains concerned that the meetings won’t translate into centering community input in the actual budget. 

“If the process is the exact same, we’re going to have the same exact results,” she said. 

Michael Isaac Stein contributed to this story.

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Josie Abugov is an undergraduate fellow at Harvard Magazine and the former editor-at-large of The Crimson’s weekly magazine, Fifteen Minutes. Abugov has previously interned for the CNN Documentary Unit...