Nobody was under any impressions that the Proposed New Orleans City Operating Budget for 2021 was going to be a joy-filled document. After all, the city has had a huge fall in revenue as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, so budget cuts were anticipated across all government departments.
Mayor Cantrell estimated that on average they would be cutting the funding of departments by 20%. That’s not to say the cuts were doled out equally, rather some departments took the brunt of the cuts, like Public Works and the City Planning Comission which both received 40% cuts.
Other organizations got off way easier, namely the NOPD and Sheriff’s Office who received an
8.2% budget cut and a 0% budget cut respectively.
The city council chose again to give the NOPD the largest operating budget by far. In the budget proposal, public safety expenditures, the police, fire department, and sheriff’s department, made up more than half of the city’s total budgeted expenditures. They were only reduced by around 6% while nonpublic safety expenditures were reduced by 19%. The police department will receive the biggest chunk of that budget, with $50 million more dollars than the fire department is getting.
Of course, the lack of cuts to the NOPD budget will feel like a slap in the face to individuals who participated in and supported this summer’s Black Lives Matter protests.
Sade Dumas, the Executive Director of The Orleans Parish Reform Coalition urged Cantrell and the New Orleans City Council to listen to its constituents and make more of an effort to reallocate funds from the NOPD. She commented, “Budgets are moral documents. We can see how our elected leaders prioritize our well being based on how they vote on the budgets and where they allocate those funds. So if they really care about their constituents, they need to show that through the budget.”
Many other organizations have called on the city to reduce funding for the NOPD in the 2021 budget including the MacArthur Justice Center, the Orleans Public Defenders, and the ACLU of Louisiana which urged the New Orleans City Council to pass a resolution “committing to sharp reductions in law enforcement in the City’s 2021 Budget (including terminating the City’s contracts with non-NOPD law enforcement agencies) and redirection of those funds to housing, health care (including community- based mental health services), income support, living wage employment, community- based violence prevention programs, education, youth programming, and youth employment.”
To appease individuals calling for the defunding of the NOPD, the New Orleans City Council passed a non-binding resolution that “urged for” the creation of a public database by the Office of Independent Police Monitor to track and evaluate officer discipline, department policies, and the force used by police.
However, Independent Police Monitor Susan Hutson stated that the current budget of her department was not enough to support the database and that, “We have been slowly working on the database as our budget allows.” With a 12% budget cut, instead of a boost to the Independent Police Monitor’s budget in 2021, that database’s development will probably be further stalled, making Cantrell and the Council’s empty gesture even more hollow.
While some may cite the rise in crime over the summer as the reason for the lack of NOPD budget cuts, the 0% budget cut for the sheriff’s department is still unexplainable. The New Orleans jail population has consistently been going down for years, from 3,400 people in 2010 to 1,152 now. In fact, most of the individuals in the New Orleans jail are there because they couldn’t make cash bail, so the jail isn’t even increasing public safety it’s just punishing the poor.
Notably, the budget proposal is much less thorough than it has been in previous years, with the omission of information on how the operating budgets will be specifically used in departments and how much employees will be paid by departments.
The Orleans Public Defenders office appropriation, which normally shows up in the budget as a yearly grant from the Department of Miscellaneous is not even mentioned in the 2021 budget. Unfortunately, that was not where the snubbing of them ended.
Last year, the New Orleans City Council passed an ordinance that the Orleans Public Defenders Office’s budget would be 85% of the DA’s budget. In 2020, the DA’s office received a budget that was over 3 times that of the Orleans Public Defenders, which advocates argued led to a lack of adequate representation for criminal defendants, and in turn a higher rate of incarcerations and wrongful convictions.
However, the New Orleans City Council went back on that mandate so instead of receiving 85% of the DA’s budget, the public defenders will receive 28%. In response, the Orleans Public Defenders Office released a statement that echoed their disappointment that the ordinance was not followed, elaborating, “The ordinance was an urgent statement by New Orleanians and the Council for equity and fairness – correcting decades of disparities in New Orleans. The prolonged gap between OPD and the district attorney remains too great to ensure anything more than a crisis in justice.”
The City Council will be holding individual budget hearings with each department and agency, making changes based on those hearings, and then approving a final budget on December 1.