On a Tuesday evening in July, the McDonogh 35 auditorium looked a little lopsided. One side of the venue was filled to the brim with members of Mayor LaToya Cantrell’s administration, while the other side — meant for members of the public — was sparsely populated. Such was the scene during nearly every one of Cantrell’s five community budget meetings held across the city over the past two weeks. 

“I’m not necessarily happy with the crowd,” City Councilmember Eugene Green said during the July 25 council District D meeting at McDonogh 35, the first of the five budget meetings.

Then he added, perhaps overly optimistic given recent polling on residents’ satisfaction with the state of the city, “Maybe it’s because some things are going on and people are feeling comfortable about the future.”

The meetings are held annually to provide community members an opportunity to ask questions and voice or air their concerns and frustrations about the city as Cantrell prepares her 2024 city budget. Residents who attended wanted answers on the city’s infrastructure, employees, crime, public education, mental health and more. 

“Collectively, we set the tone about how we govern, how we lead and how we serve with all residents being a top priority for us,” Cantrell said at the start of the first budget meeting on July 25.

The 2023 budget, as approved late last year, is roughly $1.5 billion, which included a large federal boost, courtesy of the federal American Rescue Plan Act. The ARPA dollars have now largely been accounted for, and the city is facing new budget pressures. Still, revenue collections have been on track this year, according to recent reports from the administration, and, at least as of late May, the city projected that it would have tens of millions in its surplus fund after obligated dollars have been spent. 

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Typically, by this time of the year, the budget is well in progress, with department heads submitting their requests during the summer. Cantrell has until Nov. 1 to present her proposed budget to the City Council, and the council has until Dec. 1 to pass a budget. 

All of the meetings began with Cantrell highlighting what she considered some of her administration’s achievements since she assumed office in May 2018. Among them: the creation of the New Orleans Mobile Intervention Unit, a non-police unit created to assist with mental health incidents; and a partnership with the New Orleans Family Justice Center, which works with victims of domestic violence.

However, one major concern that came up several times at the community meetings was the perceived lack of investment in youth programming.

Monica Millon, a New Orleans native, lives in Gentilly. The mother of two, who attended the District D budget community meeting, expressed her concern about the state of the school system in the city. (The New Orleans city government does not administer local public schools. Most are overseen by the elected Orleans Parish School Board and run by semi-autonomous nonprofit charter groups.)

Youth programming

On a comment card that was handed out to residents during check-in, Millon asked the mayor about whether there is funding put into data analysis and research when selecting charter schools to operate in the city. She also asked about whether there are public resources given to the struggling charter schools.

“Why is it that we’ve allowed so much of the large systems here in New Orleans to be privatized?” Millon asked after the first budget community meeting at McDonogh 35 Senior High School. 

“The city of New Orleans does not manage the schools in the city,” Cantrell said. “Although it’s not my authority, I believe that I have a role to play, in terms of being responsible and that will be through efforts through the Mayor’s Office of Youth and Families.”

Instead, Cantrell pointed to the city’s recent investments in truancy enforcement, which she acknowledged were not very effective.

“It’s no surprise to me,” Millon said of the mayor’s answer. “A large issue we have in New Orleans is that a lot of funding is put into outcomes and symptoms, versus early intervention and early resources for these children and their families.”

City employee attrition

Few residents attended Mayor Cantrell’s community budget meeting at Warren Easton Charter School in District B on July 27. Credit: Nigell Moses/Verite News

Another major issue that was brought up at all of the budget meetings was the dwindling city workforce. The New Orleans Police Department’s manpower has recently dipped to levels not seen in decades. It’s now considered “partially dissolved” by the Municipal Police Employees Retirement System, requiring large monthly payments to keep the pension system solvent. But other departments have also seen their ranks diminished during Cantrell’s tenure, despite massive surpluses from federal pandemic aid over the past few years.

Cantrell acknowledged at the meetings that the city is in need of more workers in a number of departments. 

Shannan Cvitanovic is the executive director of Friends of the New Orleans Public Library, a nonprofit dedicated to supporting the city’s library system. She attended District B’s community budget meeting on July 27 at Warren Easton Charter High School. Cvitanovic was concerned about how long it’s taking the city to hire new workers.

“People reach out to me with questions about working for the library,” Cvitanovic said. “What I hear often is that, ‘I’ve applied to work with the city and haven’t heard anything.’”

Cvitanovic also said that people are frustrated about the slow response from the city on the status of their job applications. By the time applicants are contacted, they’ve often moved on to something else, Cvitanovic said.

“That concerns me because we have people who want to work. And for whatever reason, I don’t know why they don’t seem to be getting contacted, or why it’s taking so long for them to get into the queue,” Cvitanovic said.


Rob Zrabkowski is the President of the Aurora Gardens Neighborhood Association located in Algiers. He stood up to voice his concerns about the condition of the roads in his neighborhood. Credit: Khalil Gillon

Infrastructure and the condition of roads across the city were the main issues raised at District C’s meeting at Martin Behrman Charter School in Algiers on Aug. 1.  

“Algiers is treated like the stepchild of New Orleans,” Rob Zrabkowski said. 

Zrabkowski is the President of the Aurora Gardens Neighborhood Association. He stood up during the meeting to voice his concerns about the roadwork in his neighborhood, particularly along Berkley Street between Sullen Place and Woodland Drive.

“I’ve got a street in my neighborhood that has been on the planned tab of the roadwork website for over five years and it’s never been funded,” he said.

Cantrell offered to take Zrabkowski on a tour around the city, presumably to show the progress of the city’s other road repair projects. Many of those have been funded through a $2 billion post-Katrina allocation from FEMA. After halting progress on meeting the agency’s deadlines during Cantrell’s administration and her predecessor’s, former Mayor Mitch Landrieu, the city has been forced to ask for extensions to avoid losing what’s left of that money. 

“Your city is leading in the United States of America with the level of projects we have in queue because we’ve done the work and the due diligence,” the mayor said. “Your city is doing more now than we’ve ever done in history, because we’ve never had the funding to do it.”

The city’s Black community

Monica Millon, who lives in Gentilly, attended District D’s community budget meeting on Tuesday, July 25. Millon was concerned about what resources are provided for the youth of the city. Credit: Nigell Moses/Verite News

The District E meeting was held on Monday, Aug. 7 at Martin Luther King Jr. High School in the Lower 9th Ward. One of the questions asked was, “The government has failed the majority of the Black community. How will the budget address this?”

Cantrell responded by urging residents to not embrace the idea that the city is failing the Black community and went on to say that the budget is focused on affordable housing, early childhood learning and addressing maternal health. 

During the meetings, the mayor answered questions about city projects including the renovation of Lincoln Beach. Lincoln Beach was a Jim-Crow era amusement park that was designated for New Orleans’ Black population, while Pontchartrain Beach, noticeably bigger and with more resources, was designated for the city’s white population. Lincoln Beach closed almost 60 years ago when Pontchartrain Beach was desegregated. 

$24.7 million was designated to the beach and its renovation is set to take place in 2024 with completion possibly in 2025, the mayor said. 

Residents also had questions about neighborhood projects such as tennis courts and community centers. Cantrell brought up the planned mental health facility for the New Orleans jail, called Phase III, that the city has been ordered to build as part of a long-running federal consent decree. She explained that she would love to do more community projects instead. 

Michael Burnside, who attended most of the community budget meetings, spoke on the importance of such events.

“This is one place where you can meet administration officials and talk to them face-to-face,” he said.

But Millon, for one, left the budget meeting in District D disappointed in the mayor’s responses. 

“I feel like I walk away with many more questions than answers,” Millon said.

Lue Palmer, Josie Abugov and Minh Ha contributed to this report.

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Khalil Gillon is a New Orleans native from Algiers. He attended Thomas Jefferson High School and is a graduate of Louisiana State University in political journalism. Passionate about politics, Gillon ran...

New Orleans native Nigell Moses graduated summa cum laude from Xavier University of Louisiana with a bachelor’s degree in Mass Communication. She is a published contributing writer, with stories in The...