About halfway through the first of New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s annual “budgeting for outcomes” community meanings, I briefly wondered whether I should check in on whether he’d decided to switch parties.
Republicans routinely rail against all-powerful federal judges and unfunded mandates, but I can’t think of a time when I’ve heard a Democrat pile on the way Landrieu did Tuesday night.
In this case, though, Landrieu’s diatribe had little do nothing to with ideology or partisanship and plenty to do with money — specifically, the cost of two massive federal consent decrees aimed at fixing unconstitutional practices at the New Orleans Police Department and the Orleans Parish Prison.
Or make that “potential consent decrees,” to hear Landrieu tell it, with perhaps more optimism than the situation warrants. Both documents have been approved by federal judges, Lance Africk in the prison case and Susie Morgan — who, ironically, landed the job on the recommendation of Landrieu’s senator sister — for the police, although the city is pursuing appeals. Among the judicial decisions that the mayor predicted would “cramp my style” was Morgan’s selection of the Justice Department’s choice to monitor the police agreement, at a cost of $1.4 million more than the mayor’s preferred firm’s bid.
For all of Landrieu’s declared ambition to remake New Orleans, he spent a good deal of time at the public meeting pointing fingers, tamping down expectations and explaining zero-sum math.
“If a federal judge this week orders us to pay the sheriff a bucketload of money,” he told the Council District C residents who gathered for the first of five such meetings, which take place every year as the administration assembles its proposed budget, “it’s the same dollar that we use to hire police officers and firefighters.”
“And so a federal judge might force you — because he can, because he’s a federal judge and he’s really powerful, and he can seize your assets — to take your money and move it out of the police department and fire department, safety and permits, recreation, and into the sheriff’s office so that the sheriff can hire more deputies,” Landrieu continued, in one of many similar riffs. “Because there’s only a limited amount of money, and guess where it all comes from? Everybody should raise their hand, because it comes from you.”
While Landrieu aimed his harshest assessment Tuesday at the federal judiciary, Landrieu is actually fighting with all sorts of other officials these days.
There’s Sheriff Marlin Gusman, obviously, whom Landrieu accuses of wasting money at OPP and then expecting the city to bail him out; and there’s the Justice Department, which started as Landrieu’s friend in police reform but became a foe once it embarked on the prison consent decree simultaneously.
Then there are the city’s firefighters, with their hefty pension costs (“The money we spent on the firefighters’ pension, we cannot spend to hire firefighters,” Landrieu said Tuesday); the Wisner heirs, Landrieu’s adversaries in a complicated legal battle over the proceeds of lucrative coastal land; Clerk of Criminal District Court Arthur Morrell, who has threatened to shut down courtrooms unless the mayor ups his budget; the judges at Civil District Court, who want to build their own new courthouse rather than join the city at the old Charity Hospital; and more.
The trend is partly due to the mayor’s combative style, but there’s a also common theme: the high cost of running government, and particularly of fixing problems that have festered for decades.
That’s not Landrieu’s fault, but it is his problem. And as he pointed out, when you’re dealing with the federal government, “not having any money is not a defense.”
As budget season approaches, his blunt message for his constituents is that it’s their problem too, one that they’re likely to see reflected in some unappetizing choices.
They’re already seeing the effect in higher sewer and water fees. Responding to an angry question about those costs, Landrieu again blamed Washington.
“The federal government and the EPA, just like with the Justice Department and the police, are coming down and saying, ‘we are mandating that you do a certain thing, and guess what, you have to pay for it,’“ he said.
“Budgeting is not for the faint of heart,” he warned. “For years and years and years we’ve kicked the can down the road. If it all comes due at the same time, it’s hard.”
Hard for the politicians who will have to spend a lot of time saying no, particularly if the bills for the two big law enforcement consent decrees come due.
And even harder for the constituents who will have to hear it.
Stephanie Grace can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.