Government & Politics
 

Proposed budget asks courts, library to use their own funds

Friday’s round of City Council budget hearings continued much in the same vein as those of the first two days: Department heads estimated the impact of smaller allocations from Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s proposed $491 general fund budget.

And council members continued to ask departments to tap into their reserves, generate as much outside revenue as possible, and generally do more with less.

The scene has repeated itself at budget hearings over the past few years. Council members say tight budgets are necessary because the city is trying to improve its bond ratings, pay for rising benefits costs and fund the mandates in two consent decrees.

After Hurricane Katrina, the city’s ratings were below investment grade, forcing it to pay higher interest rates on its bonds. Its ratings gradually have risen over time.

The year before Landrieu took office, the city had triple-B ratings from both Fitch and Standard & Poors. His office maintains that the city wouldn’t have achieved its recent A rating from Standard & Poors if it hadn’t cut spending and raised revenue.

But some department directors contend that they won’t be able to perform key services with less cash.

Here’s a look at Friday’s presentations. (Budget figures are for the general fund.)

Municipal Court
2012 budget: $2.6 million
2013 proposed: $1.9 million

Landrieu is asking the court to come up with $1.5 million to supplement his allocation of $1.9 million, and that’s money that the court doesn’t yet have, Municipal Court Chief Judge Desiree Charbonnet said.

The city based that figure on the $1.2 million the court generated this year from cases and other revenue sources, Budget Director Cary Grant said.

Councilwoman Susan Guidry noted that the court’s budget didn’t reflect the additional cash it would be getting as a result of a state law that increases fees for convictions from $15 to $30 per case.

Charbonnet said the conviction fee was doubled in August and said it’s difficult to collect from certain offenders. “I hate to sound like a broken record, y’all, you know but we deal with the homeless, the very poor of the city, the poorest of the city, the mentally ill,” she said. “It’s the proverbial blood out of a turnip.”

She later said that judges shouldn’t be in the business of simply making money, that “it goes against the pledge we take when we take office.” That earned the vigorous nods of Council President Stacy Head and Vice President Jackie Clarkson.

Traffic Court
2012 budget: $354,356
2013 proposed: $389,640

Self-generating revenue for 2012: $12.1 million
Self-generating revenue for 2011: $12.9 million

The court’s revenue dropped this year because fewer citations have been written, Judicial Administrator Debra Hall said, and she expects the trend to continue next year. Reasons for fewer citations: reduced manpower in the Police Department’s traffic enforcement, more car accidents that lead to time-consuming reports, and more special events that required traffic control.

As a result, the court has reduced expenses by $3.8 million. Staff has been cut by 24 percent, going from 93 to 71 employees.

The courts don’t have any “vast” surplus, Chief Administrative Judge Robert Jones said – about $60,000 total. Last year the court handed over a $2 million surplus to the city to help alleviate budget woes.

The court expects to be short about $300,000 next year, Hall said.

The presentation drew the ire of Janet Howard, the head of the nonprofit Bureau of Governmental Research, who asked Guidry what she had done to ensure that Municipal and Traffic courts had fallen in line with the inspector general’s recommendations.

The office has raised questions about the necessity of judges’ take-home vehicles and described a number of times they have failed to follow city policy and state law.

Guidry responded that she was working with the inspector general “on a slate of ordinances” that will change both entities’ operations. “We hope to have those filed by the end of the year,” she said.

New Orleans Public Library
2012 budget: $0
2013 proposed: $0
How the library will get by: $8.2 million in taxes, $8 million in reserve
What they need to fund programs in 2013: $14.5 million

Again for 2013, the city didn’t allocate anything from the general fund to the library. It has about $8 million in reserve, but officials expect that to drop to $4 million by the end of 2013. By 2014, the fund could be down to about $600,000, library officials said.

Many of the city’s libraries have been renovated since Katrina, but not the main library, Executive Director Charles Brown said. The building doesn’t have climate control or advanced security, and it hasn’t been renovated since it was built in the late 1950s, he said.

The library also wants to provide more preschool programs, public computers and technology training classes, among other things, he said.

Library board member Helen Kohlman said the library provides many important services, but she understood the council’s situation. “We’re not complaining about dipping into our kitty that we pinched pennies to save,” she said. “We know that you would if you could, but you can’t.”

Clarkson and Councilwoman Kristin Gisleson Palmer both commended Brown on the work that the libraries have done, noting that the Algiers Regional Branch is always busy. Councilwoman Diana Bajoie suggested that the library increase its millage.

Department of Parks and Parkways
2012 budget: $6.5 million
2013 proposed: $6.1 million

The mayor’s office wants to cut Parks and Parkways by 5.7 percent from last year. When Palmer asked Director Ann MacDonald if the cut would hurt the department, she replied, “We may have to cut one week off at the end of the summer for grass-cutting, but we think that we can make it.”

Councilwoman Stacy Head, speaking up for the first time that day, raved about the department’s importance: “You’re one of the fundamentals and foundations; you keep us looking clean and neat and clipped,” she said. “You’re one of the first departments that should be funded.”

Department of Sanitation
2012 budget: $37.4 million
2013 proposed: $37.2 million

Sanitation took a smaller cut this year than other departments, with only a 0.5 percent decrease. The mayor didn’t allocate $325,000 for its Florida Avenue Transfer Station.

Acting Director Cynthia Sylvain-Lear reminded the council of her department’s importance, telling them, “The litter does not stay in one spot” during Mardi Gras and other events.

The city’s curbside recycling program has been successful, she said — more than 5,000 tons have been recycled so far, with 40,000 households participating, she said. The department expects to reach its goal of 6,000 tons by the end of the year.

Bajoie asked Lear and Grant if the department collects a trash fee from krewes and second-lines. Grant said those groups need a permit, which the city does charge for. “I get so many complaints about the second-lines,” Bajoie responded.

(In October, Bajoie successfully led an effort to make second-line vendors get city permits.)

Mosquito, Termite, & Rodent Control Board
2012 budget: $2.3 million
2013 proposed: $2.1 million

Director Claudia Riegel breezed through her department’s goals for the year with a wide smile. After council members began glancing at each other during her presentation, she joked, “I know, right? We’re getting major budget cuts, and I’m excited!”

Landrieu denied $440,000 requested by the department for pest control, pesticides, airplane parts and jet fuel, and overtime pay. Due to the 10 percent decrease from last year’s budget, she said, “I might have to make cuts in personnel. Things might get ugly. But we’re going to do it.”

The department has made $300,000 in cuts in the last two years, she said.

Regional Transit Authority
2012 budget: $0
2013 proposed: $0

In the final presentation of the day, there seemed to be confusion among council members about whether the Regional Transit Authority gets city money. It receives a portion of the local sales tax, but nothing from the city’s general fund.

That didn’t stop RTA board Chairwoman Barbara Major from going over the stats of the system and saying more needs to be done. “Too often we see riders looking down the street wondering when we are coming to get them,” she said. “Too often they are missing their connections.”

Biggest takeaway from the presentation: The Loyola Avenue streetcar line will open January 2013, RTA General Manage Justin Augustine said. The agency will begin work on the North Rampart Street streetcar extension in 2014.

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