By Gregory Rusovich | The Advocate | June 8, 2022
“The French Quarter is disgusting,” shouted a recent Times-Picayune headline quoting a local worker. For years, French Quarter residents and leaders have been howling about the crumbling streets, pervading stench, aggressive panhandlers, uncontrolled homelessness, rampant graffiti, a general sense of lawlessness and surging violent crime. Residents citywide face many of the same imminent threats and are speaking out and pleading for action. But are government leaders listening?
Our quality of life is deteriorating, and the city is no longer clean or safe.
New Orleans has always possessed a unique feel, beautiful architecture and rich history combined with engaged, warm and friendly people. Tragically, residents are now fleeing to safer, cleaner communities.
While some New Orleanians compare notes at get-togethers of the latest family’s move to Covington, Waveland, Bay St. Louis or Fairhope, those without the resources to move have no immediate choice but to hope for safer and cleaner days. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Orleans Parish lost 3.8% of its population from 2016 to 2021. The greater New Orleans area outside Orleans Parish grew by approximately 1.1% over the same period.
How about other comparative cities’ population trends over that period? Atlanta and Charlotte each grew by 4%, Jacksonville grew by 8% and Charleston is up 13%.
The problem with population loss is that it leads to a civic death spiral. Fewer residents mean less tax revenue, which means fewer/worse services, and that drives even more population loss. Successful cities provide residents a safe, clean and orderly community to live, work, play, and raise a family. Government has a fiscal and moral duty to deliver these qualities and basic city services in a competent, efficient manner.
It’s been well documented that violent crime is increasing at a dangerous pace. According to the Metropolitan Crime Commission, there have been 120 homicides this year — a shocking 135% increase relative to 2019. Shootings and carjackings have also surged since 2019, all resulting in countless victims surrounded by grieving families and a frightened and angry public.
And now we are also witnessing numerous other crimes go unaddressed or ignored, leading to a general sense of lawlessness. Drag racing on city streets, aggressive panhandlers harassing visitors, vandalism on private property and felony narcotic violations are rarely deterred or punished.
From Jan. 1-May 19, there were a total of 73 arrests citywide for felony narcotic violations, with less than 20% of drug felonies closed with a guilty as charged decision. Felony drug arrests serve as a major deterrent to future crime. Historically, police and prosecutors have successfully reduced violent crime by targeting notorious drug organizations in the city.
And for those who are brazenly tagging and vandalizing, we must catch and prosecute the repeat perpetrators under the criminal damage to property statute.
The historically low New Orleans Police Department manpower numbers have reached crisis stage. As the ranks have plummeted from 1,500 officers in 2010 to a reported 993 today, the job has become even more difficult and dangerous. Despite a robust pool of applicants, government leaders have been unable or unwilling to figure out a way to hire or retain more officers. While Jefferson Parish passed a millage providing an immediate, substantive pay raise for its officers, Orleans equivocates on significant salary and bonus adjustments and even dithers over whether to allow the force to use all crime-fighting technology tools available. And while dangerous drag racers flaunt their motor skills on our streets, Baton Rouge deploys helicopters to nab its culprits.
Addressing the immediate challenges will also require longer term, holistic solutions. To mitigate this deeper set of critical issues, the city must greatly expand support for vital mental health, addiction and youth services. We should fund, and help scale, local, proven programs which bolster our youth, treat those with chemical dependency and mental health issues and provide a vital safety net.
Visitors returned to Jazz Fest this year in record numbers, demonstrating the enduring appeal of New Orleans. Our airport is now among the top in the country. Our port is preparing to launch a game-changing new maritime terminal and corridor. Our technology, medical and diversified energy sectors are vibrant and poised for significant growth.
But city leadership must do its job — provide a clean, safe city, with drivable streets. Deliver basic services funded by hardworking taxpayers. Time is running out. Fix it.
Gregory Rusovich is a civic and business activist.