NOLA Councilman Joe Giarrusso Discusses Accomplishments, Top Priorities and Inspiration That Led Him To Lead a Life of Service

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Councilmember Joe Giarrusso has been delivering much needed services to the citizens of Council District A for more than three years.

A third generation elected official, Giarrusso grew up in a home where public service was a family tradition. His outspoken leadership on the S&WB has been valuable to all. 

District A includes portions of Uptown, Mid-City, the Fairgrounds and Lakeview. Giarrusso spoke to the Big East Magazine about several issues important to voters. 

DC: When did the Giarrusso family come to America and from where? What work did they do initially?

JG: My great-grandfather, Ignazio, immigrated from Palermo, Sicily to the United States in the last quarter of the 19th century. Like many immigrants, he changed his name, becoming “James Ignatius” in America. Like so many other Sicilians, my family originally lived on Barracks Street in the French Quarter before eventually moving to Ursulines. James Giarrusso started off unloading beer in the French Quarter but eventually he became a clerk in City Hall. My paternal grandmother was from Vacherie. My Mom is Jewish and her relatives from Germany, Poland, and Russia also came to America in the late 1800s.   

DC: You are the third generation of your family to serve the public. Can you briefly tell us about other family members who served?

JG: My grandfather served as New Orleans’ Chief of Police in the 1960s. His brother and my great-uncle, Clarence, was Chief of Police after my grandfather. Clarence went on to have a long career as a Juvenile Court Judge and my grandfather served as a Councilmember at Large from 1976-1994.  My Dad — Joseph Giarrusso , Jr. –was a Criminal District Court Magistrate.   My Mom — Robin — has served on the Civil District Court bench since 1989.

DC: You were a successful lawyer. What made you decide to run for office?

JG: I thought ,”This is going to be the generation that skips serving in elected office.” Like so many, after Katrina, I was moved to get more involved civically. I joined the YLC in 2007. In 2011, I became the organization’s 25th president. That role was a huge springboard to serving other organizations. Eventually, I chaired KIPP New Orleans Schools and Lakeview Civic Improvement Association as well as serving on the executive committee of the Bureau of Governmental Research. Between the policy work and constant neighborhood engagement of all those organizations, I learned a lot about listening, building coalitions, and achieving practical solutions. When a respected potential successor to Councilmember Guidry decided not to run and called in June 2016 asking me to consider running for District A, I was flattered but still unsure. I started talking to people who I thought either would be ambivalent or slightly encouraging about running but they were almost all emphatic that I should do it. And, with my dad having died five years earlier, I did not want to look back and regret not taking a chance and embracing a challenge.  

DC: What have been your biggest accomplishments and your greatest disappointments?

JG: I can safely say my biggest accomplishment is saving New Orleans taxpayers over $70 million in four years. Under my plan, the Council and City reduced citywide millage rates by 4.60 mills for 2020 while increasing essential city services. That represents an estimated revenue value of more than $16 million in 2020, with continued savings over the next few years. It is not always feasible to keep millage rates stable while increasing city services, so I’m thankful for everyone’s collaboration on this important effort.

My greatest disappointment is that I haven’t had the opportunity to share this experience with my dad, sister, and two close friends. While it’d be a reach to expect my grandfather to be alive, I miss not having my dad and sister. They would have been the best counsel in every way — telling me the unvarnished truth of when I did something right and, candidly, the more frequent criticism of how to have done something better. In particular, my dad had a great read on me, almost intuitively knowing what I was thinking or how I was leaning and giving good, often tough advice, on what was best. I also terribly miss Nancy Marsiglia and Donna Klein who were like family. They were incredible women whose love and support are missed.

DC: Is New Orleans ready for an active hurricane season?

JG: With what happened in Lake Charles with Hurricane Laura and the recent heavy rains, power and drainage are two of the most urgent issues for the City. For about the past year, the Sewerage and Water Board of New Orleans (SWBNO) has been operating Turbine 1, Turbine 3 (which is being decommissioned), Turbine 6, the EMDS, and other smaller power sources. The biggest thing for now is rehabilitating two power turbines in preparation for this hurricane season. Turbines 4 is beginning to operate now, with Turbine 5 expected to be online by early June. Everyone is keeping their eyes on the availability of those two turbines. If they are both operational, SWBNO will have roughly an additional 35 MW of power, which is a big upgrade over where we were a year ago. The Mayor, the Council, the New Orleans Legislative Delegation, Entergy, and SWBNO are also working on plans for a substation at the Carrollton Water Plant are also underway. This substation is a transformative paradigm shift away from the turbines and will provide 60 MW of dedicated and new power to SWBNO.

DC: What will it take for the Sewerage & Water Board to operate more efficiently?

JG: We generally talk about four “C”s: competency, communication, coordination, and credibility. And, all of those require good management and strategic planning. Clearly, until SWBNO gets its billing issues under control, it will not have the public’s trust. My staff meets every Monday with senior SWBNO personnel to go through bills — most of which are in District A but many from other parts of the City. They also need to improve on infrastructure deliverables, particularly in responding to resident complaints and giving reasonable deadlines for repair.

It is part of the reason why, when I got into office, we were so adamant about receiving the quarterly reports, which had pretty much been forgotten. Our Public Works meetings have focused on canal cleanings (which SWBNO is now performing more regularly), trying to improve the lack of communication between SWBNO and ENO, the finances of SWBNO, billing, and infrastructure. While SWBNO doesn’t tout this improvement, they have begun placing valves on major pipes across the City. It has not eliminated, but has seriously mitigated, boil water advisories. There is still much more work to be done.

DC: How should the City’s federal recovery funds be spent?

Infrastructure is a public safety issue. We’re not going to have a town if we all drown. The ARP money allows cities to backfill revenue lost from COVID that was approved for infrastructure spending. The pandemic gutted the Fair Share funds meant for DPW and SWBNO that the Mayor fought to get. That revenue needs to be replaced. We also have an incredible opportunity with FEMA funds (also called JIRR projects), a $500 million bond issuance, and ARP, to look at forward-thinking stormwater management and green infrastructure.  

Other public safety departments — NOPD, NOFD, EMS, S&P, DPW, Code Enforcement, CPC, Sanitation — need to be re-evaluated to ensure reasonable, equitable, and efficient work. In the Op Ed co-authored by Cm. Banks and myself, we also discussed increased spending on at-risk kids. Jefferson Parish dedicates 3.5 millages for juvenile services and Plaquemines Parish has CARE centers. As we said, it doesn’t do anyone any good if we put people back on the streets without job skills, employment and, when needed, treatment for mental illness and addiction.

DC: From Black Pearl to the University sectors, Hollygrove to Lakeview, your district is very diverse. How do you keep up with the unique needs of each neighborhood?

JG: I go to all neighborhood association meetings in the district. As I tell my neighbors, it helps me to listen to them. Really, it allows me to keep a pulse on what is going on and constantly be in the field. The top four issues in nearly every neighborhood are: crime; drainage, streets, and infrastructure; improving economic development (which is related to COVID recovery); and quality of life issues such as noise. My office is in near constant communication with neighbors and the Administration about these issues. 

DC: What is your favorite part of your job?

JG: That’s easy. This job puts me in constant contact with people. By the time many people contact us, they are frustrated with their problem and are looking to us for help. We cannot fix them all but being responsive and helping as much as we can is important. And, when we have successfully helped a constituent, that is the best.

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