Eli Ackerman: Real Stories of the Budget Patrol

For the last few weeks, I've been trying to stay apprised of the ongoing City Council hearings for the 2010 budget. Without going into the boring details, the city's budget approval process over the last few years has been extraordinarily confusing. I have been trying to identify whether or not the city is allocating additional money for unreported costs associated with the proposed LSU/VA project.

More specifically, I want to know whether or not the city is allocating money for other purposes with the intention of shifting funds to cover costs associated with the proposed LSU/VA medical center in a discretionary fashion outside of public purview and beyond the regular oversight capabilities of City Council.

On Monday, November 16th, we found a new agreement – signed by the Mayor – that obligates the City to this stalled project in new and important ways. I brought the document to the City Council budget hearings for answers and what we heard may surprise you.

I don’t usually write in the first person on the SaveCharityHospital.com blog. I do so here because there is no other account of these events. Read the whole post to hear about my experience at City Council on Monday and exciting news about the VA's possible willingness to relocate to another site in downtown New Orleans should it be offered to them.

A few years ago now, without holding public hearings or gaining approval from the City Council or City Planning Commission, Mayor Nagin signed a memorandum of understanding with the Department of Veterans Affairs. This MOU – now subject of a lawsuit by Lower Mid-City residents – ceded 34 acres of Lower Mid-City to the VA and obligates the City of New Orleans to pay for a laundry list of expenses, above and beyond simple compensation for people losing their homes and property.

These obligations include demolishing properties in the footprint, tearing up streets and sidewalks, relocating all public and private utilities, and paying fines for any failure to meet a late November deadline by which the city was supposed to turn over the land in "construction-ready" condition.

At a preliminary hearing in the Thurman V. Nagin case on October 23rd, the attorney for the Mayor's office said that the city was in the process of renegotiating these intergovernmental agreements.

We recently obtained one of these agreements, this one between the City of New Orleans, LSU, and the State of Louisiana. Without delving too far into the details, it seemed to me that the city could to be footing the bill for far more than anyone originally believed. With these suspicions in mind, I went down to City Council to ask questions before the City Council Budget Hearings.

The whole experience was surreal. Many observers, including Councilmembers themselves, have concluded in the past that the systems established to pass a budget do not provide sufficient opportunity for Council to exercise their oversight powers. The Mayor provides a budget and then Council has only a few weeks to examine it, question department heads, and pass a balanced budget ordinance. If the Council has major questions or concerns, it may not get them addressed. If Council has big objections to certain expenditures, it takes a majority to make any real changes. Doing so can be extraordinarily difficult and time-consuming even on a City Council where members are on cordial terms, let alone in agreement.

This Council is rarely in agreement and members are certainly not cordial with one another. Thus substantive oversight and real change appear unlikely even though there are areas where most of our City Council would agree that the case for reform is clear.

The 2010 budget contains several items that seemed to warrant further examination. Many of them are listed under the budget for the Mayor's office, as opposed to an independent department such as public works or sanitation. Thus, on Monday the 16th, the only day the Mayor's team would be in front of the budget committee, one would have expected that City Council would prepared to get down to business.

Instead, City Council spent almost the entire morning session bickering over how much time each member would get to ask questions, whether or not there would be extensions granted, whether one could yield additional time to another Councilmember, and how they would be timed.

Councilwoman Shelly Midura, who seemed upset about being cut off from asking questions in previous hearings, set up an alarm timer without telling anyone. When it went off, everyone was looking around in confusion until she announced her intention to keep track of everyone's questions. Councilwoman Cynthia Hedge-Morrell, the Chair of the Budget Committee, was not happy about this at all but in visible frustration, placated Councilwoman Midura's demands that all Council examinations be strictly timed.

Chaos soon reigned as Councilwoman Midura continued to maintain her timer to gauge whether that employed by the Clerk of Council's was accurate. Invariably, they sounded off at separate intervals. The cacophony of droning budget testimony and competing alarm buzzers was enough to make last year's budget hearing highlight, a screeching argument between Sanitation Director Veronica White and Councilwoman Head, sound like a symphony orchestra.

Thankfully, and perhaps as a result of considerable prayer by City Council spectators, the alarm standoff cooled considerably by the afternoon session for M. Harrison Boyd's presentation on the city's use of Disaster Community Development Block Grants.

After Councilwomen Stacy Head and Shelley Midura, who seemed most motivated to cross-examine city officials on various budget vagaries, requested clarification for the close to $14 million allocated for the former VA hospital, City Attorney Brenda Breaux came out of the audience to approach the microphone. She explained that this expenditure was not labeled properly and that a $6 million portion of it was indeed designated for the proposed new VA footprint. Yet, even the explanation of this strange, multi-million dollar inaccuracy in the city budget seemed to be misleading.

A close reading of the a new CEA between the City, State, and LSU would seem to indicate that the city is on the hook for more than Breaux initially indicated. The new CEA, available for download here, appears, among other things, to obligate the city to spend an additional $8.5 million for the relocation of public utilities, pay for social services to those subject to eminent domain, reimburse the state's expenses related to the demolition of streets and sidewalks in the VA footprint, pay for a new drainage system, and reimburse the state for the relocation of private utilities.

Given that the expense of much of this work has yet to be negotiated, or is otherwise unknown, it troubled me that the City would enter into an agreement that is so financially onerous without a substantive understanding of its cost.

Just as frustrating is that the City Council remains in the dark about the very existence of  new agreements that obligate city money through the very budget they are charged with passing.

After witnessing the confusion between City Council and the administration over these expenditures and armed with a copy of the new CEA referenced by Ms. Breaux, I took advantage of the opportunity to comment as a member of the public. By the time I'd finished asking my questions, all hell seemed to break loose. After Councilpersons expressed concern over the discrepancies I raised, and promised to seek clarification as to what the new agreements the city was signing would cost, you could hear a pin drop when I asked whether or not the City Council would hold public hearings to debate, and possibly ratify, the agreements being entered into without their knowledge.

Next thing I knew, Council President Fielkow essentially accused me of municipal sedition for raising questions about the efficacy of the current proposed location for the new VA hospital. Then, Councilwoman Head spoke up in strong support for the FHL/RMJM alternative plan to gut and rebuild Charity Hospital.

In even bigger news, Councilwoman Head said that VA officials have indicated a willingness to relocate the new VA hospital out of the most heavily populated part of Lower Mid-City to the site currently slated for use by LSU. That would give the community North of Galvez a real chance to rebuild and allow Charity advocates to debate LSU on the merits without any fear-mongering about the VA. This would require a lot of compromise from parties that haven't been willing to budge on anything in this process to date.

The VA can only build on land that is offered to them and LSU or the State would have to make the offer. Still, Councilwoman Head's news about the VA's flexibility is unprecedented news and at least cracks open a door that had previously appeared bolted shut.

Don't just take my word for it, watch the video of my exchange with City Council in its entirety! Huge thanks to the prolific ChampSuperstar for helping to capture the video. She's great to follow on Twitter for all sorts of news and notes.

Eli Ackerman at the NOLA City Coucil Budget hearings 11/16/09. from ChampSuperstar on Vimeo.