New Orleans plans purchase of new police cars, ambulances with $15M in federal funding
City officials have identified the dealers who can supply 49 Dodge Charger Pursuits, 29 Ford Police Interceptors and other vehicles
By Matt Sledge
The Times-Picayune | The New Orleans Advocate
NEW ORLEANS — New Orleans is poised to spend $15 million on 129 new police cruisers, ambulances and other vehicles, the latest allocation of $388 million in federal pandemic relief money that helped stabilize city finances and funded Mayor LaToya Cantrell's police retention plan.
The ordinance, which was passed unanimously by a City Council committee last week and is set for passage on the full council's consent agenda on Thursday, comes as the city moves to update hundreds of aging vehicles after years of supply-chain disruptions.
But the proposal has sparked discussion over how City Hall is spending its remaining $69.6 million in American Rescue Plan Act funds and whether officials are providing enough information about where all that money is going.
New rides needed
The city says there's a dire need to upgrade the city fleet of 2,300 vehicles, which on average are over 13 years old. Officials believe aging rides are contributing to the high rate of turnover at the New Orleans Police Department and Emergency Medical Services.
In response to a request from the Cantrell administration, the full council last month passed an emergency measure authorizing the city to seek informal bids for up to $75 million worth of new vehicles — the estimated cost of replacing 1,500 cars, trucks, ambulances and SUVs.
The budget committee vote was the next step towards buying a fifth of those new vehicles. City officials say they have identified auto dealers who can provide 49 Dodge Charger Pursuits and 29 Ford Police Interceptors for the NOPD, 22 ambulances for EMS and smaller purchases for agencies ranging from the Orleans Parish Coroner's Office to the New Orleans Fire Department.
When the $15 million is spent on those vehicles, the city will have $54.6 million remaining from its allocation of $388 million in American Rescue Plan Act funds. So far, the city has spent $187 million to replace lost revenue and has appropriated $32.5 million for police recruiting and retention, $30 million for a criminal justice IT overhaul, $15 million for a Sewerage and Water Board substation and $10 million for right-of-way maintenance, among other items.
The vehicle funding ordinance, which is co-sponsored by the full council, passed with little discussion among council members. However, the measure drew several comments calling on the council to rethink how it spends relief dollars.
Since nearly the moment the American Rescue Plan Act passed in March 2021, progressive groups have asked the Cantrell administration to spend more on housing, youth services and mental health care as opposed to police.
"Please use this money to fund lasting change that tackles the roots of violence instead of our punitive criminal legal system. If locking people up made society better, we would live in a utopia," Silas Eames told the council in an online comment on Thursday.
A separate measure sparked a discussion over how transparently the city has spent its relief funds. The ordinance squirreled away $6 million in relief money that the council allocated for police retention bonuses in the annual budget it passed in December. While the city had hoped to distribute that money to cops in March, a recent Louisiana Attorney General Opinion said that cannot be done until July.
Janette Jurado, an organizer with the New Orleans Workers' Center for Racial Justice, said the city must do a better job of explaining its use of the federal dollars. The council should hold the Cantrell administration to an ordinance it passed last May requiring monthly updates on ARPA funds, she said.
"We keep asking the same thing. That is your responsibility. We voted you into office to help us recover and become something better, and the first step in that, as you know, is transparency," Jurado said.
Council President JP Morrell said the intention of the ordinance governing the $6 million in relief funds was simply to keep the money "parked" for now. But he said he agreed with the idea that the city should be more transparent with its use of ARPA funds.
"The council's position, which you should continue to hold us to account for, was that no further ARPA money would be spent without a transparent process," said Morrell.
The transparency should also apply to the city's roughly $100 million in unspent fund balance monies, Morrell said.
The Cantrell administration has defended its transparency around the use of federal funds, pointing to a series of town halls the mayor held last year. On Friday, the city updated an online breakdown of its ARPA spending.
City spokesperson John Lawson said that a more comprehensive online dashboard will be published in March, adding that the city has not decided how much of the relief funding it hopes to spend on vehicles.
"The administration is working diligently to procure as many assets as quickly as possible to meet the needs of our departments and improve the safety and quality of life for residents, businesses, and visitors," said Lawson. "However, we must balance the investment in these assets against the other needs of the city."
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