Orleans Parish Clerk of Criminal District Court Arthur Morrell didn’t waste any time Friday morning telling the New Orleans City Council that the proposed $3.7 million budget for his office next year would cause a “drastic layoff of people at my office.”
The 90-person clerk’s office handles all court services, including maintaining and processing court files. It also does a lot of photocopying.
Morrell told the council that his office already had been cut to the bone, and 98 percent of his budget is for personnel. The remaining 2 percent is taken up largely by photocopying court documents for the District Attorney’s office and other parties to criminal proceedings. Those costs are mostly picked up by the clerk, not including photocopies for other attorneys.
Morrell identified copy paper as his top non-personnel expense.
The City Council, led by Criminal Justice Committee Chair Susan Guidry, was less interested in copy paper than about staffing. This year she has repeatedly questioned staffing levels at the clerk’s office.
Morrell said his staffing level is set by the Louisiana legislature, and the city has to abide by it.
“The state requires that you pay me the budget I need for the staff that I need,” he said. “The Legislature is the only authority that can reduce the budget.”
That argument did not sit well with Guidry. “We have to pay, but the clerks and the court get to choose how many people they hire,” she said. “It’s untenable, and it leads to overstaffing.”
Several council members asked about the Clerk of Criminal District Court’s practice of staffing all 12 courtrooms with two clerks each. Guidry cited a recent, city-funded report from the Philadelphia-based PFM Group that said the court should stop double-staffing.
Guidry noted that Criminal District Court has 155 employees and the Clerk of the Court has about 90. She considered 245 employees to be sufficient, if not generous.
“I lay no credence to what they wrote,” Morrell said of the PFM Group report. It cost the city about $90,000, only to be lambasted by city officials like him.
“Don’t lump us in” with the Criminal District Court’s staff, he added. “If you had less judges, I would need less people.”
Councilman Ernest Charbonnet wouldn’t let the staffing question go. He asked why Morrell couldn’t hire one or two “floaters” who would fill in as needed in the 12 criminal courtrooms.
Morrell said that would be impossible given the workload. He added that the interest of justice is served when his staff can expedite paperwork and its other administrative duties.
“We don’t want justice delayed,” he said. “That’s why we double up.”
Morrell’s wife, Councilwoman Cynthia Hedge-Morrell, did not take her seat in Council chambers until Friday afternoon’s hearings.
The city’s proposed 2013 budget for Morrell’s office is $1 over its 2012 allocation of $3,726,329.
But appearances can be deceiving.
Last month, Morrell sued the Landrieu administration for, he said, failing to provide about $141,000 pledged to the Clerk of Criminal District Court in its 2012 budget.
That reduction was part of the city’s 3.8 percent across-the-board cut, implemented in March. City officials realized they were running a $14 million deficit for the year because revenues didn’t meet expectations.
The city projects $491 million in revenues for 2013. Chief Administrative Officer Andy Kopplin has warned that the 2013 revenue projection and overall spending plan is $6 million less than the 2012 plan.
Rising health care costs and a $7 million first-year price tag to implement a federal consent decree for the New Orleans Police Department are putting additional strains on the 2013 spending plan.
City Budget Director Cary Grant told the council that Morrell’s lawsuit against the administration kept the city from cutting more in 2013.
Under its charter requirements, the city must pass a balanced budget by Dec. 1.