Built on a toxic land fill hope was raised a short time go bet the City Council did not act. Or maybe they did showing they are kicking the can down the road but that is not what is needed. No one should live on a toxic landfill that was a Superfund cleanup site.
Rules of order dissolved Wednesday in the New Orleans City Council chamber, as a meeting to pass a 2022 budget turned into an extended, contentious exchange between city officials and Gordon Plaza residents demanding relocation assistance. By the end, the council passed Mayor LaToya Cantrell’s $1.5 billion operating budget with last-minute amendments that added roughly $36 million for several initiatives, including tenant legal representation, domestic violence victims and a “nighttime mayor’s office.” The budget also includes $15 hourly minimum wages for city employees and raises for New Orleans Police officers that were included in Cantrell’s initial budget proposal. Regardless of what it included, though, the focus of the meeting was on something that was never in the administration’s proposal to begin with: money to move more than 50 households away from the Upper 9th Ward subdivision that was built on top of a toxic dump four decades ago.nola.com
Help was all but promised. The City says they will act. But when?
Cantrell and her deputies have recently stressed their commitment to helping Gordon Plaza residents, who have been a regular presence in council chambers with the hope of getting the attention of city officials. Chief Administrative Officer Gilbert Montano raised hopes during a Nov. 4 budget hearing when he said the capital budget proposal contained a “specific line item” that would be a “starting point.” Cantrell also afforded a shoutout to Gordon Plaza residents in her victory speech after winning reelection on Nov. 13. “I’ve heard you over the past three and a half years. Not only have I heard you, (I’m taking) necessary steps,” Cantrell said. The line item Montano mentioned turned out to be $2 million to commission a site assessment, which officials say is necessary to appraise the land.
I can agree with the need of an assessment but why has not one been done as this has been a long time problem.
Residents say $35 million is needed for relocation, but there has not been a formal analysis. Council member Helena Moreno passed a motion directing the City Planning Commission to analyze the costs of land acquisition and relocation. Ultimately, the administration wants to replace the subdivision with a solar farm that would support drainage pumps, a plan it hopes will be funded by the $1.2 trillion federal infrastructure package. The provisions of the federal legislation related to remediating Superfund sites could potentially include land acquisition costs, which would help pay for relocations. “This is a pretty big moment in terms of the city demonstrating commitment to this issue,” said Ramsey Green, the city’s infrastructure chief.
Infrastructure money will come at some time. It will do a lot but it has to be released first.
But it is not clear — and won’t be for some time — what the infrastructure bill will pay for, and residents hoping the administration’s recent signals would translate to immediate relief were bitterly disappointed Wednesday. Olga Johnson, who lives on Abundance Street, said she feared the Cantrell administration’s efforts would turn out like prior administrations, which dithered while the neighborhood around Gordon Plaza developed the second-highest rate of cancer in the state. “This has happened over and over and over. It feels like we are being pulled back again,” Johnson said. “We need to go, and we need to go now.” District D Council member Jared Brossett proposed during the meeting to start a relocation fund with $5 million from federal stimulus funds. The proposal split the council into a 4-3 vote against the measure. It also resulted in a departure from typical decorum, in which members of the public are allotted two minutes to comment at a specified time.
The Brossett proposal led to a tense meeting with neither side doing well.
Instead, debate over Brossett’s measure took on the feel of tense community meeting with residents ignoring calls to stop interrupting and taking turns at the microphone. Council members eventually stopped making the requests, engaging residents in a free-flowing back and forth as they debated one another at the dais. District B Council member Jay Banks derided Brossett’s measure as “Kabuki theater,” questioning the point when the amount Brossett proposed is likely far below what is actually needed. District C Council member Kristin Gisleson Palmer, who supported Brossett’s idea along with District E Council member Cyndi Nguyen, said relocation could occur along “multiple tracks” while waiting for assistance from the infrastructure bill. “If there are other pots of money we can go after to relocate them now, I don’t think we should sit here and wait,” Palmer said. “These residents also went through Katrina. They saw the city having billions of dollars that came down here, and they were still not relocated.”
The meeting did have some bright points.
Not everyone left the meeting disappointed. Housing advocates were pleased with the administration’s agreement to commit $2 million to a “right to counsel” program guaranteeing legal representation for tenants facing eviction. That is up from an initial budget proposal of $500,000. The District Attorney’s Office received an additional $300,000 for domestic violence prosecution and victims assistance, automatically netting the Public Defender’s Office an additional $85,000 to comply with the city’s parity ordinance. The administration will also commit $710,000 to a “nighttime mayor’s office,” an idea swiped from Washington, D.C. and New York City. While operating on night hours, the new office would deal with service industry regulations and liaise with bars and nightclubs.
Good things occurred but Gordon Plaza will not go away until action is taken. The City Council needs to come up with a plan.