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Could DOJ decree kill Carnival parading in New Orleans?

11th February 2013   ·   0 Comments

By Christopher Tidmore
Contributing Writer

As this Shrove Tuesday winds to an end, Zulu finishes his march, and Rex meets Comus at midnight to close Carnival, there are real fears that next year’s parading season in New Orleans may be cut short thanks to a Department of Justice consent decree.

The new jail and DOJ mandates might kill Mardi Gras. Not the day itself, but the resources to underwrite policing for the nearly two weeks of parades which comprise the Uptown Carnival season. Confirmation of that fear came from Federal District Court Judge Lance Africk two weeks ago. His ruling demanding more funds for the new parish jail — along with costly reforms within the New Orleans Police Department —which may force the redirection of enough money away from the NOPD patrol budget that special event policing would have to be drastically curtailed.

That could translate directly into fewer parading days in Orleans Parish. However, some insiders within City Hall think they may have an answer. They wonder if an agreement with the suburbs to provide extra police resources, in exchange for owning the penultimate weekend of Carnival, could keep a half a month Mardi Gras alive even amidst the DOJ mandates.

The two consent decrees would require the city budget, according to some estimates, to cough up $17 million in fixes for the new Orleans Parish Jail next year, and as much as $12.5 per year in costly improvements for NOPD.

The agreement with the Justice Department, outlined in a 492-point blueprint mandates a wide variety of changes for NOPD, from revamped data collection, to the use of force, to procedural changes to avoid further civil rights violations. The reforms for the new prison insists upon higher training and increased pay for sheriff’s deputies, improved mental health care for inmates, and near real-time reporting of incidents to restore confidence in a prison known for escapes, random violence, and murders.

All of that costs money, enough to nearly bankrupt the beleaguered city budget. Mitch Landrieu had initially welcomed the involvement of the Federal Department of Justice in reforming NOPD, but with the spiraling costs of Criminal Sheriff Marlin Gusman’s new jail complex and his attempts to build it up to DOJ standards, the Mayor began to call the combination of the Justice Dept.’s mandates “a gun to the city’s head”.

It is not much of an exaggeration. The best case scenario involves massive City Hall layoffs, month-long furloughs, and massive reduction of services. Or large tax increases in a city that will already see sewerage and water rates double by 2020 to pay for infrastructure repair — and has already experienced real property tax increases — as the City Council “rolled forward” milliage rates after rising assessments initially rolled them back.

The City Council may have to consider service cuts, particularly in the criminal justice budget, before next year. And, explained District C Councilwoman Kristen Palmer in an interview with The Louisiana Weekly, “I don’t want to have to choose between patrolling neighborhoods and providing for special events.”

However, if left with no choice, she emphasized, “I won’t leave neighborhoods unprotected.”

Several advisors close to the Council have had to get creative in order to preserve the current 10 plus day parading schedule, and some are suggesting an idea that would have been impossible in past years: trading a parading weekend with Jefferson Parish and the other suburbs in exchange for added police resources in Orleans on the other Carnival days.

Of course, there has always been close cooperation between the Jefferson Parish Sheriff’s Office and the NOPD during Mardi Gras. Several Orleans parades boast of JPSO cruisers and State Police units. However, the arrangement has always been ad-hoc.

Then the Super Bowl put a weekend pause in Orleans Parish’s parades, on the penultimate weekend of Carnival at the NFL’s behest, but not those rolling in the suburbs. Jefferson’s “Family Gras” on the neutral ground in front of Metairie’s Lakeside Shopping Center posted its largest crowds ever on that Saturday.

The West Bank’s Krewe of Alla, even after cutting off the Algiers at the Superbowl’s behest, boasted a massive populace along its Terry Parkway to Gretna route. As State Rep. Ricky Templet put it, “People felt like they were able to stay home and watch a parade in their back yard…It was like when I was growing up.”

The proposal floated in many quiet quarters of Duncan Plaza simply wonders whether Jefferson and the other suburbs would like to keep their exclusive weekend prior to Mardi Gras. In exchange for not competing with the St. Charles Ave. parades, they might be willing to contribute real police resources either the weekend prior to New Orleans, when there are few parades outside of Orleans, or on the nights leading up to Mardi Gras Day itself.

Such a cooperative endeavor could help foster suburban parade attendance in future years and, at the same time, relieve at least part of the funding crisis in the Orleans budget. It would require the agreement of both Jeff Parish President John Young, his Council, and Sheriff Newell Norman (and at the very least some leaders in St. Tammany and St. Bernard) but would provide a definite economic upswing for restaurants and hotels outside of the city itself.

So far, no word has come from either Young’s or Norman’s offices on the idea, but some New Orleans Councilmembers are open on variations of it.

“I’m intrigued,” Councilwoman Palmer said.

This article was originally published in the February 11, 2013 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper

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