By Jessica Williams, The Lens staff writer |
Despite District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro’s impassioned plea to the City Council Tuesday to boost city spending on his office by more than $1 million, council members pushed back and encouraged him to trim even more.
Cannizzaro’s office was one of four groups to appear in front of the council Tuesday in the city’s last week of hearings on the 2012 budget. Mayor Mitch Landrieu presented his budget last month, and the council have the ultimate say after hearing from all departments due to get money from the city.
Though Cannizzaro’s was funded at more than $6 million, Landrieu did not include $1.6 million of the district attorney’s initial request. In perhaps the most boisterous presentation of the day, if not of recent weeks, Cannizzaro attempted to convince the council to fund the additional money – the bulk of which would go victim- and witness-protection efforts and programs designed to keep non-violent offenders from being prosecuted. Cannizzaro presented detailed outlines comparing the city’s funding for the District Attorney’s office to that of other parishes’ offices – as well as statistics and in-depth profiles of violent offenders convicted in the past three years.
He was adamant in saying that his office had done all it could do with what it had been given.
“From 2008 to 2011 the budget of the District Attorney’s Office has remained relatively static,” he said. “Now we have reached a point in our office where we have no more fat to cut. No more grant funding to obtain.”
Though, as Cannizzaro mentioned, the proposed budget for his office is not much different from last year’s dollars, changes in what his office must pay out will ultimately result in a shortage. The burden of health insurance premiums, which the city has long paid, will fall to Cannizzaro’s office in 2013. For next year, the city has asked the district attorney’s office to pay half of those contributions. The office also will lose more than $800,000 in grants that were intended to kick start reforms, but not permanently finance them. Cannizzaro needs to find money to replace that, or make cuts.
The office also has faced other, long-term problems due to low funding. His office’s senior assistant district attorneys are cherry-picked by other, higher-paying jurisdictions on an almost monthly basis, he said – less than a third of his attorneys have been there more than three years. He then pointed out that the cost of a law school graduate’s average student loan payout, the cost of living in New Orleans, and the average attorney’s salary sets up a bleak financial picture for those in his office.
“The defense attorneys for the offenders are not rookies,” he said. Such a high turnover of attorneys in his office hurts its ability to adequately prosecute the accused, he said.
Comparisons of his office’s municipal funding with that of others in the state painted a similarly bleak picture – when comparing percentages of general fund dollars other parishes dole out to their District Attorney’s offices, New Orleans ranks second to last with a 1 percent allocation. In other methods of comparison – including dollars given on a per murder basis, a per violent crime basis, and a per warrant basis – New Orleans didn’t fare much better. On a per murder basis, New Orleans ranked last in funding in a group of 13 parishes, by Cannizzaro’s calculations. To make the comparisons, Cannizzaro grabbed each parish’s budget that was posted on a parish website, he said.
But despite this appeal, some council members remained firm. Nearly every recipient of city money is getting less this year.
“For every dollar that we allocate to someone else, someone loses a dollar. So if you are telling me that your budget is $1.1 million (short)…it’s very difficult for us to figure out some of our services,” Councilwoman Cynthia Hedge-Morrell said. “I understand what you want, but I also want you to go back to the drawing board and say what can you live with, if you can’t get it all.”
Councilwoman Stacy Head and Councilman Jon Johnson echoed Morrell’s statements, asking Cannizzaro if there were any money he could move from other places to plug the holes he anticipates in 2012.
Cannizzaro said that the next logical place to look to make cuts would be in programs, and eventually, support staff.
The Human Services Department, the Criminal Justice Commission, and the Health Department also presented Tuesday.
Council members questioned the propriety of the Human Services Department, intended to provide a wide range of social services, spending 90 percent of its budget on the Youth Study Center, the city’s juvenile jail.
The council must approve the budget by Dec. 1. The budget year starts Jan. 1.