Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Everyone Must Pay Attention to NORA

I have to admit that I don't know anything about these guys.

The New Orleans Redevelopment Authority seems like it will have an extremely significant role in helping us out with our empty lot problem.

Er, it would be nice to get some help with the empty lot problem.

(Note: Not the empty lot problem we create for ourselves by demolishing public housing and handing over that already-public land to private developers that determine that it is more profitable to leave stick us with the lots.)

I refer to the empty lot problem that the city has been creating 'on our behalf'. (Though without permission, basic disclosure, or transparency)

And the empty lot problem created by the federal flood.

Today, Mr. Frank Donze wrote a long piece that made the cover of the Times-Picayune.
Some interesting background that anecdotally provides insight into how pathetic this city and state are:

NORA, the New Orleans Redevelopment Authority was an agency created by the state of Louisiana thirty some years ago and was originally called the Community Improvement Agency.

Though NORA was created by the State of Louisiana, it is run by appointees of the Mayor of New Orleans.

NORA's own website has predicted that Hurricane Katrina will swell the number of blighted properties in this city to well over 100,000.

Certainly, blight removal emerged as a pressing need for the rebuilding process.

Yet, according to the T-P:

Historically an underfinanced, low-production organization, NORA was effectively shut down after Hurricane Katrina. The agency has been rebuilt since the fall of 2006, when Nagin expanded its board and persuaded the Legislature to pass laws strengthening its authority to assemble land.

So it took about a year for the city to decide that the flooded-out NORA would be the lead agency for flipping blighted properties back into commerce. The Mayor chose a devastated agency but somehow was able to convince the State Legislature to give it the authority necessary to get anything done.

Then the Mayor castrated the agency's ability to move forward with the Mayor's own plans. The very next paragraph from the T-P article:

But the revival has been painfully slow, as the Nagin administration sparred with NORA over how much autonomy from City Hall the agency will have and how much money it needs to operate.

Now that's what I call good governance!

NORA spent 2006 and 2007 operating without a budget from the city, instead relying on charitable grants from non-profit organizations. This allowed NORA to triple it's pre-storm staff from a why-does-this-agency-even-exist-in-the-first-place five to a are-you-serious-this-is-the-agency-that-is-in-charge-of-getting-rid-of-the-blight fifteen. But when the money ran out over the summer, NORA had to put a freeze on hiring.

Additionally, from the T-P:

In the past, city waited until the end of the year to reimburse NORA for expenses incurred over the previous 12 months.

Wow, what a novel business model!

But this T-P article is largely hopeful because Nagin and NORA have come up with some sort of compromise that will allow the agency to really set things off in 2008...

After months of sometimes angry debate, Nagin and NORA board members settled their differences in December when the mayor signed an operating contract and a pair of agreements that assign NORA specific recovery-related tasks.

The contract will eliminate NORA's immediate cash-flow problems, allowing the agency to collect $1.2 million in reimbursements from City Hall for costs incurred in 2007. Once that money is in hand, Abbott said, the agency will resume hiring.

The city also has increased NORA's 2007 appropriation for its regular operating budget by $800,000, to $2 million, this year.
...The administration now is willing to repay NORA as expenses come due, a move that agency officials say will provide needed flexibility when it comes to hiring and purchases.

Nagin also has signed two documents that will funnel federal dollars to NORA for specific assignments, including:

--$5 million in Community Development Block Grant money to begin clearing pockets of blight in the city's 17 target recovery areas. Under the federal program, NORA will be reimbursed after it acquires a property.

--$2 million in Urban Development Action Grant money to acquire land around the footprint of the planned veterans hospital, just off Tulane Avenue. Under that agreement, land acquisition by NORA will be restricted to an area bounded by Poydras Street, Broad Street and Claiborne and Orleans avenues.

Now that sounds like progress. I hope there's nothing else to italicize...

All parties agree that the money allocated for the two land-assembly projects is too little to finish those jobs, but the city has agreed to seek additional financing. The amount of money needed for the tasks hasn't been determined.

Ah, damn it!

...And there's even more silliness:

The delicate budget picture became evident last week as the board authorized its staff to sign a contract to map the entire city using geographic information system technology, even though NORA lacks the money to pay for all but a fraction of the work. The entire project is expected to cost $400,000.

Abbott said NORA is negotiating with nonprofit organizations to pay for the mapping initiative but hasn't yet secured any money. Determined to get the project started, he told his staff to earmark just enough money for one month of work. If the grant money doesn't materialize, he said, NORA will pay only for work done and suspend the project.

Yup. The Mayor says 2008 is the tipping point. Can't you FEEL the optimism?!?

I don't feel completely helpless and crazy though because I know there are people organizing neighbors to keep up with what's going on...

Go here and make your questions and confusions and comments and rage and encouragement known. Get down. Put it on public record at thinknola!

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