July 8 – St. Bernard Parish officials finally agreed to issue building permits for three of four mixed-income apartment complexes, but not until contempt of court fines reached a whopping $40,000.
The cost could have gone even higher. U.S. District Judge Ginger Berrigan began fining the parish $10,000 a day two weeks after parish officials defied her order to issue building permits for the complexes. Provident Realty and the Greater New Orleans Fair Housing Action Center asked the judge Tuesday to begin increasing the fines, which could have reached $100,000 a day.
Parish President Craig Taffaro said this week that St. Bernard’s legal fund could handle up to $70,000 “if we juggle some of the funds.”
But thankfully, officials didn’t juggle the funds. Instead, the fines seemed to be a wake-up call for parish officials, who, when faced with contempt of court charges in the past, had capitulated before fines were imposed.
“As far as I’m concerned, we have no choice,” Councilman Mike Ginart said at a meeting Tuesday. “It’s not my money to give. When we talk about paying the fines, what happens is we would have to stop providing services; we would have to lay people off. That’s not what we want to do. It’s not like we have a benefactor to pay for it. It’s the people’s money,” he said.
Indeed, it would have been a waste of public money to continue incurring contempt charges. But the same is true of the two-year long fight against the apartments. As of February, St. Bernard Parish faced $1.5 million in attorney and settlement fees — an amount that will only grow as the fight continues. That’s a lot to pay, especially when the money is being spent to defend a discriminatory housing policy.
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