After months of citizen pressure to fix New Orleans' pothole-riddled streets, Mayor Mitch Landrieu last week appointed a 13-member task force to identify the city's most pressing infrastructure needs — and find ways to fix them. The task force includes professionals in the fields of engineering, finance, construction and other disciplines, along with several founders of the citywide "Fix My Streets" movement. Landrieu asked the group to seek "untapped" local, state and federal funding sources, but he did not identify any particular fonts of cash.
Hizzoner is not without ideas of his own, however. This coming spring, Landrieu will ask voters to renew a tax that is projected to finance up to $100 million in street work over the next few years. While that seems like a lot of money, experts say the city needs $9.3 billion over the next 20 years to bring streets as well as sewer, water and drainage lines up to snuff. The mayor also is negotiating with FEMA for $1 billion to supplement federal aid sent to the city for infrastructure repairs after Hurricane Katrina.
While the long-range task is daunting, Landrieu is asking the group to come up with some short-range proposals in time for local lawmakers to pre-file legislation for the 2016 legislative session, set to begin March 14. Landrieu wants long-range solutions later next year.
Louisiana law severely restricts local governments' ability to raise revenues, but the problem extends well beyond statutory limits. A recent report by the Bureau of Governmental Research (BGR) noted that local taxpayers ante up more than $1 billion a year, but only about a quarter of that goes toward general city services. The rest is dedicated to a wide array of services and entities, some of which have huge cash reserves. Those dedications were adopted piecemeal over the years. While many made sense at the time, their cumulative effect is a budgetary quagmire.
The BGR report, titled "The $1 Billion Question," notes that public safety and education are the two largest recipients of dedicated tax revenues. No one suggests that taxpayers reduce funding for those services. However, just as state lawmakers soon will consider unraveling some of Louisiana's numerous budgetary dedications, the city likewise should put every option on the table when it comes to local tax dedications — before asking voters to pony up additional tax dollars.
BGR suggests the city do two things: first, identify immediate opportunities to "redeploy" revenues to meet top priorities; and second, conduct a comprehensive re-evaluation of tax dedications and develop a plan to meet the city's priorities before the mayor presents his 2017 budget. We agree with BGR's conclusion that the city should evaluate all dedications "not in terms of each taxing body's ambitions, but in the larger context of the community's needs."
In many ways, the city's road to fiscal stability is not unlike many of its bumpy streets. It's a road not easily taken, but it's the only way to get where we need to go.