These two surveys of the Morial years are excerpted from works prepared for Mayor Morial and for his successor, Sidney J. Barthelemy.
By Judith Martin
The history of the city of New Orleans, under the mayorality of Ernest "Dutch" Morial's second term administration, 1982-1986, was comparable to that of other major metropolitan areas of the United States. Like other communities, it faced problems of crime, burgeoning utility rates, civil rights, welfare, education, sagging finances, regionalism, and cutbacks in federal and state revenue sharing.
These facts were strongly borne out at the annual U.S. Conferences of Mayors. Mayors in attendance at the 1984 conference in Philadelphia were angered by recent federal budget cuts that would affect programs aimed at helping cities, such as teen-age summer employment, economic development, and aid to the poor.
The problems facing New Orleans, though, were compounded by its plans to host the 1984 World's Fair. In 1974, the Louisiana Tourist Commission had proposed that New Orleans should put in a bid to be the site for the fair. As early as 1981, however, Mayor Morial began to be skeptical about the possible success of the undertaking, and its long-term benefits for New Orleans.
Ultimately, the World's Fair was a critically-acclaimed success, but financially, for Louisiana World Exhibition, Inc. (LWE), the non-profit corporation that ran it, it was a $102 million catastrophe. Five days before the fair's November 11, 1984 closing, LWE filed for reorganization of its debts in the United States Bankruptcy Court.
The fair did provide some long-term benefits for New Orleans, besides happy memories for those who visited there. The city acquired a fine new convention center. Portions of the Mississippi riverfront that had been slowly degenerating were revitalized, as were parts of the Central Business District.
The pavilion hall from the World's Fair was remodeled into the Riverwalk, a food, entertainment, and shopping area. Major hotel chains like Marriott and Sheraton built on a grand scale in anticipation of the crowds of tourists flocking to the fair, ultimately providing the city with additional hotel space for future conventions, including at least one of the presidential conventions in 1988.
By December of 1985, the Downtown Development District (DDD), using money from a dedicated property tax millage to improve the Central Business District (CBD), was already working on several approved projects. These included an art program (managed by the Arts Council) designed to place art in public places, the development of a Science Center, special police patrols, tree planting, daily sanitation pick-up and street cleaning, a subsidy to the RTA's CBD shuttle bus line, and "brown bag" concerts.
The older part of the city, the French Quarter, already undergoing a "freshening-up" of its own, received a revitalizing boost from the impetus engendered by the fair. Long before the fair, the old Jax Brewery near Jackson Square was refurbished as a sparkling indoor market place. Plans were set in motion to examine the feasibility of building another attraction, an aquarium, on the Quarter side of Canal Street near the River. This latter project met opposition from some merchants and preservationists from the area, but is proceeding on schedule.
In 1981, an earlier land-swap arrangement between the city administration and the deBartolo Corporation provided the impetus for what would become the New Orleans Centre shopping mall, conveniently located between the Superdome and the Hyatt regency hotel on the site of the old Girod Street Cemetery. the Poydras Street corridor became the focus of enormous and remarkable changes, characterized by the sudden burst of new, impressive office buildings in the area.
With the eyes of the nation upon them, thanks to the fair, New Orleanians felt that they had shown clearly that they were determined to make their city one of the bright metropolitan stars of the century. Administrators began to look at options that would strengthen the city's economic competitiveness, and its ability to support the civic services people expected its government to provide. All revenues, with some exceptions, went into a general fund that was apportioned out to the various city agencies, from the police and fire departments to the housing authority and the libraries.
In many surveys during this time, New Orleans was frequently cited for its lack of a diversified economical base, depending too heavily on its traditional blend of tourism and state revenue-sharing funds (derived from oil production) for its financing. One proposal to diversify the economy centered on the development of the Almonaster-Michoud corridor into an industrial district designed to attract new industry to the city. Although optimism ran high, this proposal could not obliterate the many long-term problems still facing New Orleans.
The uproar, particularly in the Black community, over police brutality continued in Mayor Morial's second term. On June 19, 1981, protesters had taken over the mayor's office on the matter of what was called "the Algiers shootings."
The resolution of the case led to a $3.5 million settlement against the city. Furthermore, the police department was restructured, a 911 emergency number phone system was installed, and the Office of Municipal Investigation (OMI) was created in 1982 to investigate citizen complaints of misconduct by police and other city employees.
Allen Johnson, Jr., in the New Orleans Tribune, wrote in retrospect in 1986: "Complaints of police brutality have dropped significantly, according to the local FBI. So has crime - by almost 20 per cent over the past four years."
The city administration and New Orleans Public Service, Inc. (NOPSI), periodically locked horns over a number of issues. At that time, NOPSI controlled both the city's public utilities and transit operations.
Transit operations encountered problems caused by employee strikes, lack of pay increases, and equipment maintenance. Increasing fares by $.20, coupled with a $.01 increase in the sales tax dedicated to transit subsidy, partially ameliorated these financial troubles.
The question of NOPSI's control over transit operations was resolved in 1982 with the creation of the multi-parish Regional Transit Authority (RTA) for Jefferson, Orleans, St. Bernard, and St. Tammany Parishes. The RTA, in addition to taking over management of transit service in New Orleans, was also to coordinate streetcar and bus lines throughout the four parish area. However, Jefferson, St. Bernard, and St. Tammany Parishes have refused to fully participate in the RTA, leaving it to operate only in the cities of Kenner and New Orleans.
Although NOPSI may have lost its control over the transit business, it retained considerable, direct power over the city's utilities. Hikes in utility rates by NOPSI on the East Bank, coupled with hikes by its Jefferson Parish counterpart, Louisiana Power and Light (LP&L), on the west Bank, prompted the city attorney, his staff, and the City Council to investigate possible municipalization of the utilities by New Orleans for the protection of its rate payers.
Finances became an ever-increasing burden for the city. Louisiana and New Orleans experienced the loss of millions of dollars of tax revenues, caused by events thousands of miles away in the oil-producing countries of the Middle East. The Morial administration objected that from its meager revenues, the city not only had to pay for its own operating expenses, but also those of state-related agencies such as the coroner, the district attorney, parish prisons, and the Criminal District Court.
The State of Louisiana was suddenly caught short. The state's budget, based upon the oil industry since the 1930's and dependent upon continued high oil prices, now scarcely had sufficient funds to cover its own expenses; there was little money left to share with New Orleans.
Decisions on the national level affected the amount of funds trickling down to the states. The Federal Government was suffering the largest deficit in its history, brought about in part by an imbalance of trade between the United States and the rest of the world. It had to make cutbacks in welfare, parks programs, and revenue-sharing with the states.
The years 1982-1986 saw the Morial administration searching frantically for workable, long-range revenue-raising measures to pull the city out of the monetary doldrums. Those years witnessed a succession of short-term measures, including $50.00 service charges, land swaps, bond sales, and proposals to institute legalized gambling and lotteries. The idea of imposing an "earnings tax" on salaried employees in Orleans Parish, regardless of their parish of residence, was avidly pursued during both of Mayor Morial's terms in office, and continually met opposition.
Some economists called for the city to pursue fiscal reform through supporting legislation to revise the State's tax code in order to make changes allowing greater self-determination in the local tax structure. The State Constitution requires that revenue-raising proposals for the city have to be approved by the Legislature. In effect, New Orleans has to depend upon the will of people who do not live there to decide what it can do about handling its own responsibilities. The revision was to include revamping of the property tax laws and the homestead exemption plan, both renowned "sacred cows" of the state's political establishment. Under the administration of then-Governor Edwin W. Edwards, however, few moves were made to act on these suggestions.
Remarkably, in September,1982, the city found itself in possession of a windfall $4.8 million surplus. Immediately, plans were made to carve up this "tasty dish to set before a king," according to a Mike Luckovich editorial cartoon. But the City Council voted to set aside $2.7 million of the available money as a "nest egg," according to Councilman Sidney Barthelemy, when "it comes time to deal with the proposed operating budget for 1983."
The use of the surplus drove a deepening wedge between a majority of the City Council and Mayor Morial. This rift, widened by other disagreements, ultimately jeopardized Morial's ability to provide meaningful leadership for New Orleans.
By March and April of 1986 this surplus had vanished. In its stead was a $12.3 million (possibly even $30 million) deficit, according to various estimates cited in The Times Picayune/The States Item. Layoffs and cutbacks in civil service employee hours began. Pleas were made to save the jobs of firemen and policemen. The settlement of the Algiers shootings lawsuit caused the city to have to consider borrowing to meet its payroll.
A case in point was the public library system, which relied on the city's general fund to provide for its operating expenses. Because of the cutbacks, branch libraries were threatened with closure. Fortunately, the recently-formed New Orleans Business council, under the leadership of James R. Moffett of Freeport-McMoRan, guaranteed monthly grants of $36,000 for a maximum of six months to keep six of the system's eleven branches open.
The early 1980's did see the beginnings of programs that would benefit the city, the surrounding parishes, and the state. Multi-parish task forces were established to investigate the problems of pollution in Lake Pontchartrain, drinking water quality, the homeless, housing for the poor, and cable television. On the city level, various other task forces approached the problems of litter, the threatened takeover of Audubon Park by the State, renovation of Armstrong Park, and zoning for commercial and industrial development.
The city's administration also was instrumental in the establishment of the Office of Minority Business Development "which became a national model for city governments willing to expand economic opportunities for small and minority businesses," according to Allen Johnson, Jr. in the New Orleans Tribune in 1986.
Still the disagreement between the Mayor and the City Council continued to grow. It hinged on these questions: How much power could the city administration hold over various boards, such as the Sewerage and Water Board or the Aviation Board? Should there be a charter change to permit New Orleans mayors to serve more than two terms? With projected budget deficits, can pay raises be justified for the Mayor and city Council?
Because of these kinds of conflicts, Mayor Morial's second term, which began with so much promise, ended with much of its potential unrealized.
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