NEW ORLEANS – About 100 National Guard troops will continue patrolling New Orleans, where they have been a constant presence since a rash of violence broke out in June 2006 in the city ravaged by Hurricane Katrina.
Louisiana lawmakers on Friday approved funding to keep the troops in place through February, an extension sought by police Superintendent Warren Riley to allow his department more time to recruit more officers. The city has granted repeated extensions for the same reason.
Troops with sidearms and riding in Humvees have helped patrol less populated neighborhoods to allow police to focus on curbing violent crime, widely seen as a threat to New Orleans' recovery. And Riley said progress has been made, with police reporting at least 176 murders so far in 2008, compared with 202 a year ago.
But the cost of keeping the troops in the city did raise the ire of members of the Legislature's joint budget committee. They said the state, facing a $341 million budget deficit this fiscal year and more trouble ahead, can't afford to continue keeping the Guard in New Orleans. Louisiana's total tab, when the latest extension expires, will be about $51 million.
"We want you to feel comfortable," the chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, Rep. Jim Fannin, told Riley. "But we do feel like it is your responsibility."
Before the August 2005 storm depleted the department's ranks, it had more than 1,660 officers. Riley has overseen an aggressive recruiting program and hopes to have 1,500 officers by year's end.
In January, the state extended the Guard's stay that was characterized as the city's last.
That was followed in June by Gov. Bobby Jindal announcing plans to phase out troops by year's end.
"My intention is for this to be the last time," Riley told lawmakers in Baton Rouge Friday.
Jindal earlier this week said he's willing to work with the city but the Guard isn't a permanent solution to crime-fighting.
A National Guard spokesman estimated the number of soldiers still in the city at about 200.
Riley had said he'd like to have about 120 troops remain through February, beyond the upcoming college football bowl games that attract thousands, and tourist-favorite Mardi Gras. Mayor Ray Nagin this week put the number as low as 75.
Since Katrina, city leaders, who face a financial crunch of their own, have poured millions of dollars into the police department's budget, allowing for new hires, pay raises and equipment included armored-type vehicles.
Still, people are scared and have even been willing to tax themselves for extra, private patrols in some neighborhoods, City Councilwoman Shelley Midura said Thursday.
Riley responded that progress is being made, morale is better and that the city is safer than a year ago.