New Orleans ends furloughs for firefighters, police, but warns of possible future layoffs
The city tapped into a line of credit in order to exempt public safety workers from the cutbacks, but said additional funding will be needed to prevent future cuts
The Times-Picayune | The New Orleans Advocate
NEW ORLEANS — New Orleans ended furloughs for public safety workers on Monday, tapping into a line of credit to exempt cops, firefighters and others from a citywide policy aimed at stemming the fiscal crisis brought about by the coronavirus pandemic.
Mayor LaToya Cantrell and her administration made clear that they are betting on more federal funding and a rebounding economy to cover the costs of the move and warned that if neither materializes, layoffs could be used to fill the budget gap.
Police and fire unions have been clamoring to be exempt from the furloughs — which require every rank-and-file employee to take one unpaid day off every two weeks — since they were first announced in the fall, calls that have only grown louder as killings have surged across the city.
In her first press conference of the new year, Cantrell said that bringing thousands of first responders, including employees with the New Orleans Police Department, Fire Department, Emergency Medical Services and Health Department, back to full-time work was "the first step on the city's road to recovery."
Roughly 2,200 city employees in those departments will now be back to their full hours at a cost of about $16 million, Chief Administrative Officer Gilbert Montaño said. That would leave about 1,900 employees still receiving a 10% pay cut worth about $9 million a year.
The furloughs were put in place as the city faced historic cutbacks due to the pandemic, which forced the city to slash more than $100 million from its $726 million budget.
Montaño stressed that the decision was not because the city had come into an "influx of cash." Instead, officials plan to borrow from a $50 million line of credit the city took out last year to pay for the extra 26 days of pay for the public safety workers.
Such a proposal would have to be approved by the City Council, though that does not appear to be a major hurdle.
"If we're going to say we want to fund public safety and do things to help fund public safety we've got to put our money where our mouth is," said Councilman Joe Giarrusso, who noted widespread concern among residents after homicides spiked by 60% and carjackings more than doubled last year.
Officials said they feel comfortable the city will be able to repay that loan because they are optimistic about the prospects for another round of federal aid and the possibility that the coronavirus vaccine could revitalize the tourism sector.
If neither of those come to pass, Chief Financial Officer Norman White warned the city could be forced to lay off employees to make ends meet. Officials will be re-evaluating the budget on a monthly basis to determine whether that is necessary, White said.
White did not provide details on how many employees would be laid off under that scenario.
The Cantrell administration has warned of, or threatened, potential layoffs multiple times since the mayor took office in 2018, though none of those scenarios has come to pass.
The Cantrell administration has repeatedly expressed hope that federal aid packages would rescue it from the dire financial straits it found itself in when the coronavirus pandemic caused a severe drop-off in tourism and sales taxes. But those hopes have repeatedly been dashed, covering only a portion of the money the city says it spent battling the virus and doing nothing to dent the $100 million revenue shortfall it found itself in this year.
The second round of rescue payments approved by Congress last month explicitly excluded aid to local governments in order get Republicans to sign onto the deal. It remains unclear whether another attempt to provide money to cities and parishes could come after President-elect Joe Biden is inaugurated later this month.
"In terms of the stimulus, we will continue to advocate and lobby at the highest level, at the federal level, to make sure we've been pushing for the city getting our fair share relative to the stimulus package to assist the city with revenue losses," Cantrell said.
Similarly, the prospects of rejuvenated tourism appear relatively dim at the moment. New Orleans is seeing a surge in cases that Health Department Director Dr. Jennifer Avegno said put the city in a worse spot than it was in last April, during the first wave of the pandemic to hit Louisiana.
The rising number of cases and dwindling number of hospital beds across the state spurred New Orleans Public Schools to announce Monday they will be moving to online-only classes. New Orleans has not announced any new restrictions in months but Cantrell said more could come on Wednesday.
Cantrell also said that Monday's press conference was just the first of several announcements about how New Orleans will move forward into a post-pandemic world. Future proposals will touch on emergency response, "business response" and "organizational changes," though she did not provide details on those plans.
"We're going to move forward making sure our city is better than before," she said.
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