Government & Politics
 

Budget talks focus on transparency, expansion of open-government budget

By Matt Davis, The Lens staff writer

Today’s City Council budget hearings focused on providing better city openness and customer service, and on the expansion of Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s “open and effective government” budget.

“We need to take good record keeping and take it into the 21st century,” Chief Administrative Officer Andy Kopplin said.

Kopplin drew laughs from the council as he presented a typewriter that the city still uses for keeping track of property transfers:

“My background is how to use technology to fix broken things, so I’m excited about today,” the city’s new Chief Technology Officer Allen Square said, introducing his office’s presentation.

Square’s office clearly has a broken reputation to fix: His predecessor, Greg Meffert, pleaded guilty in U.S. District Court on Monday to taking kickbacks from a former city technology vendor.

Square made no reference to Meffert’s guilty plea at today’s hearing, focusing instead on the technical challenges facing his office. Currently, the city’s computer systems are a “hodge-podge,” Square said. “But we’ve got good people doing their best to keep them up and running.”

The technology budget is especially focused on streamlining public-records requests, Square said.

“It’s not that we’re trying to be opaque, it’s just that we have a hard time producing the data,” Square said. “Almost every public records request, I use contractors, and they cost money. I think there are a lot of agencies that want access to our data, and those agencies want us to help us solve our problems.”

Kopplin supported Square’s point of view.

“The more we can liberate data from city government, the more neighborhood organizations are able to track it and see what’s happening,” Kopplin said.

To that end, the innovation part of the city’s technology budget includes $1.3 million to create “AskNOLA!,” a combination of 311 and “customer service concepts,” $2.4 million to seed an “Enterprise Resource Planning, a business solution that addresses the systemic challenges of the city’s core operating systems,” and $750,000 for NOLAStat, “a citywide system to promote accountability and data transparency.”

Council members were enthusiastic.

“Now that there’s been an acknowledgment of the incredible ineptitude over the last few years, it looks like we can start to fix things,” Councilwoman Stacy Head said.

Nevertheless, Councilman Jon Johnson questioned the authenticity of the city’s new customer-service commitment.

“We’ve heard before that we’re going to be more customer focused, and we’ve not done it,” Johnson said. “If we’re asking people to pay more, and pay higher fees, then we really have got to show people that we’re serious about giving them better service.”

To that end, council agreed the budget should be combined with harsher consequences for city employees who don’t provide good public service.

“When you have those people that could quite frankly care less other than putting in nine to five, and they don’t respond in a way that’s customer friendly, it sends a very bad message and it taints the employee base,” Council President Arnie Fielkow said.

Nevertheless, no specific initiatives for improving employee accountability along those lines were proposed.

Landrieu’s office also drew scrutiny from the council this afternoon for increasing its budget for “open and effective government,” seeking almost $1 million for communications, $1.7 million for intergovernmental relations, and $483,000 for an office of neighborhood and citizen engagement.

The communications budget is up $325,000 over last year, and drew a few probing questions from council members. Since Landrieu took office, the mayor’s office has put on 65 press conferences, put out 118 press releases, and prepared seven major speeches, his representatives said, casting the mayor’s communications team as part of Landrieu’s effort to be responsive to the community.

Landrieu’s budget for lobbying, or intergovernmental relations, is up $900,000 over last year, from $256,000 to $1.18 million. The lobbying efforts are aimed at leveraging more money for New Orleans from state and federal government, said Deputy Mayor of External Affairs Emily Sneed Arata said.

Landrieu’s office also drew attention for paying more money to some staffers than the mayor. Kopplin, for example, earns $175,000 a year, and Fielkow said he had “philosophical” issues with some people earning more than their boss. Landrieu earns $140,000.

“In many ways there’s a leap of faith there that many of us have to make,” Fielkow said. “At the same time we have to be watchdogs for the public in terms of using their money.”

Landrieu’s staff defended the expansion of the mayor’s budget.

“Citizens have desires, they have needs, they have wants, but there is a cost associated with it,” said Landrieu’s chief of staff, Judy Reese Morse. “We will not ask for one thing more than we need in order to do the job that the citizens want us to do.”

Other highlights from today’s hearings:

• The council questions $150,000 for government efficiency consultant.

Council members questioned Square’s budget request for $150,000 for consultants to “establish a team to target challenges across government.” Fielkow said it’s the job of Inspector General Ed Quatrevaux to push government efficiency, and pointed out that the city already pays $3.5 million a year for Quatrevaux’s office.

“The thought here is that there’s a lot of energy around New Orleans, and we’ve been getting phone calls from some of the premier consulting companies who might be interested in partnering with us,” said Square, referencing consultants like Bain & Company, his former employer, and McKinsey & Company.

Kopplin said a government efficiency consultant might be able to identify needless government contracts that could be cut.

“I think the question we have to determine up here is affordability and timing,” Fielkow said.

• The council likes $300,000 for a one-stop permit shop.

Council members were interested in funding a one-stop permit processing and enforcement office for $309,000. They highlighted recent problems with the award of permits to liquor stores in areas of the city where such new stores are banned.

“When we say we have a moratorium in a particular location, people need to not be able to go in and put a liquor store on every other corner,” Johnson said.

“The fact that there were permits granted in areas where there were moratoriums is not acceptable,” Kopplin responded. “There needs to be immediately effective communication. We’ve had meetings on this. We’re responding to the concerns and complaints that have been made.”

Some members appeared cynical about the city’s current permitting practices.

“I am willing to bet that if you go back and check those illegal permits, then it’s going to be the same names on them,” Councilwoman Cynthia Hedge-Morrell said.

• City will need up to $30 million for a new payroll, accounting system.

The council was supportive of the allocation of $2.4 million to seed an “Enterprise Resource Planning” system, as a down payment on $20 to $30 million over two years. The computer system will be used by the city to warehouse its human resources and financing data — such systems are built for cities around the country by companies such as SAP.

“Right now, our payroll system is wire hangers and masking tape,” Assistant Chief Administrative Officer Courtney Bagneris said.

Councilwoman Jackie Clarkson said she hoped a request for proposals on the system would be conducted thoroughly to make sure that the system had no glitches. The $30 million price is a “monumental amount of money,” Clarkson said.

“I understand the significance of this project,” Square replied.

Currently, the city’s computer systems are a “hodge-podge,” Hedge-Morrell said. “Once we embark on this road, we have to commit to completing this project, and that means we need to go out and do bonds or whatever.”

• Council questions staff costs for NolaSTAT

NolaSTAT is based on a system started in Baltimore, where it won backing from the Ford Foundation, and has since been copied elsewhere. It would track city progress on everything from the cleaning of catch basins, to filling potholes, to how many street lights are replaced.

“If we’re tracking 5,000 new replacement street lights, we’re going to be tracking those and letting you know how we’re doing,” Kopplin said. “And if we’re tracking the number of blighted houses demolished, we’re going to be tracking those.”

Councilwoman Susan Guidry asked why the analysts to run the program would be paid $130,000 each.

“These are the best and the brightest,” Square said.

Guidry was dubious.

“What I’m seeing a lot of here is some very high management salaries,” Guidry said. “I just think that this is a public service job, and these are very high salaries.”

Kopplin said the council needs to pay people to come in to identify and fix problems.

“If we’re putting a lot of our marbles in performance improvement, then we’ve got to make sure we’re getting the right talent,” Kopplin said.

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