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Ill budget wind has blown this way before

ALSO: Nowhere to run; No furloughs planned for 2011; Be our guest

Saturday, October 16, 2010
By Michelle Krupa
The Times-Picayune

In unveiling his first budget proposal this week, Mayor Mitch Landrieu looked to a respected local think tank to help him describe the city’s fiscal condition.

Quoting from a report by the Bureau of Governmental Research, Landrieu offered these dire observations: “The city of New Orleans faces a fiscal crisis. The future is here. General fund expenditures have gone up to support current services, meet urgent needs and clean up after the hurricane. … Long-accumulating cost pressures have broken through.”

Then came the punch line.

The report Landrieu was quoting — “Dimensions and Solutions of New Orleans’ Financial Dilemma” — was written in 1966, “just a year after New Orleans was sent into a tailspin by Hurricane Betsy,” he said.

“You see, our budget problems are not new, and now is the time to have the courage to face these challenges head on,” Landrieu told his audience at Gallier Hall. “It’s time to get our city on a fiscally responsible path once and for all. “

. . . . . . .

I’M WALKIN’: To drive home another point, Landrieu recounted a story about “Miss Mable,” a working mom who couldn’t get a moment’s rest from the children, pets, job duties and chores nipping at her heels.

Worried that she would find herself in an early grave, she went to see a doctor, who advised her to walk 10 miles a day to reduce stress.

In a follow-up phone call a month later, as Landrieu told it, Miss Mable reported she was breathing easily, sleeping like a baby. Great, the doctor responded, and how are your family and job?

“She said, ‘How the hell would I know? I’m 300 miles away from those people,’” Landrieu deadpanned.

Surely, dealing with the city’s strapped budget would be less stressful if New Orleanians simply ignored it, the mayor said.

“The point is, unlike Miss Mable, we cannot walk away from our problems,” he said. “We cannot bury our heads in the sand. We have to face our challenges head on because that is what we’ve been called on to do. And so we will.”

. . . . . . .

PERSONAL SACRIFICE: Landrieu’s 2011 budget includes a few bitter pills — namely a proposed increase in property taxes and sanitation fees — that the mayor hopes residents will swallow so that City Hall can provide basic services without relying on one-time money, such as federal grants and insurance settlements.

During his speech Thursday, Landrieu recalled a few other distasteful measures he implemented this year to plug an $80 million shortfall in the 2010 budget: cutting more than 50 jobs and furloughing most city employees for 11 days, a move that effectively reduced their pay by 10 percent for the final five months of the year.

Though Landrieu’s 2011 budget assumes further job cuts by eliminating unnecessary positions at City Hall, furloughs aren’t on the table except as a last-ditch option in case of an emergency, mayoral aides said.

Even so, the mayor asked the audience to honor the sacrifice of city workers who, at least this year, had to bear part of the brunt of cost-cutting measures so the city could end the year with a balanced budget.

“We closed the gap on the back of city employees, firefighters and police officers. That, ladies and gentleman of the city, is sacrifice,” Landrieu said. “And on behalf of the city of New Orleans, for those of you that did that, I want to thank you.”

The line drew a strong round of applause.

. . . . . . .

GALLIC CHARM: After the mayor’s Thursday budget address, Landrieu and top aides presented their spending plan to the City Council on Friday at City Hall. Before his comments, however, the mayor said he wanted to introduce a “very, very special guest” who happened to be in the city, French Ambassador Pierre Vimont.

Unlike former Mayor Ray Nagin, who often struggled gamely but unsuccessfully with French names, Landrieu tossed off the phrase “Monsieur Pierre Vimont” with aplomb.

Vimont then started with a little joke: “I am the French ambassador in Washington — nobody’s perfect, I apologize.” It wasn’t clear which fact he thought his listeners might find more distasteful: that he is French or that he spends time in Washington.

He went on to promise that New Orleans “can rely on France to be always on your side” and mentioned the upcoming 300th anniversary of the city’s founding as a French colonial outpost in 1718.

Vimont, who has visited the city several times since 2008, closed his brief remarks by saying, “Long live New Orleans, and long live the extraordinary friendship between your great city and my country.”
He got a standing ovation.

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