Government & Politics
 

Council questions court clerk and worker comp spending plans for coming year

Landrieu administration officials explained why the city is spending dramatically more on employees injured on the job; Criminal Court Clerk Arthur Morrell requested more money for his office, and City Council members offered thanks for construction of new and renovated streets, swimming pools and buildings in their districts.

So it went Tuesday, the fourth day of the City Council’s hearings on Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s proposed $504 million budget for the coming year. The council must approve a spending plan by Dec. 1 so it can take effect on Jan. 1, as mandated by law.

City officials faced a barrage of questions on why they expect to shell out $24 million for worker compensation in 2013, $8 million more than expected — and another $24 million in 2014.

Courtney Bagneris, the city’s interim risk manager, and Andy Kopplin, Landrieu’s chief administrative officer, cited four factors for the 2013 increase:

  • Higher medical costs for injured workers, including two policemen treated for gunshot wounds.

  • A 4 percent increase in health care costs.

  • A new claims administrator, Hammerman & Gainer Inc. — the previous administrator having settled cases as it wound up its work.

  • More money available to pay claims, rather than extend payments into the future as was happening when city funds were tighter.

“When an officer is severely injured by a gunshot wound, those are $1 million cases, easy,” Bagneris said. She added that the city is paying more for claims by firefighters.

Bagneris said the city may be paying too much since it covers 100 percent of the cost, particularly for city workers who file claims for damaged hearts and lungs, without identifying whether they had pre-existing conditions.

City Council member LaToya Cantrell said that while she supports city workers, she suspects that some who file workers’ compensations claims are collecting more than they deserve. “We have to do a better job of monitoring people,” Cantrell said, suggesting that the city hire private detectives to keep tabs on city workers collecting payments while idled from work.

“That’s a very good suggestion,” Bagneris replied, indicating that city officials were already moving in that direction.

Kopplin was asked how city officials came up with the extra $8 million in 2013 given the scarcity of city money. He said city officials saved money by spending less on overtime and staff salaries than expected.

CLERK OF CRIMINAL DISTRICT COURT

Court clerk Morrell said his office needs $4.87 million for 90½ staff positions. Landrieu is proposing to give him $3.7 million – the same as in 2013 – for 83½ staff positions.

“The budget submitted by the mayor’s office is under-budgeting our office,” Morrell told the council. He said his staff is underpaid and asked the council for a 2.5 percent increase in salaries.

Council members didn’t offer Morrell much hope that he’ll get more money. (Morrell’s wife City Council member Cynthia Head-Morrell did not attend the session.)

Morrell filed suit against Mayor Landrieu in 2012 to get more money from the city. The 4th Circuit of Appeal ruled last week that the mayor cannot cut salaries at the clerk’s office because state law governs it. Both sides claimed victory.

The animosity between the two sides flared Tuesday before the council.

Kopplin said Morrell has repeatedly rejected suggestions on how his office could save money. “Either the clerk wants or help or he doesn’t,” Kopplin said. “It’s pretty clear from his testimony this morning that he doesn’t want our help.”

CAPITAL AND INFRASTRUCTURE PROGRAM

City officials are proposing to spend $247.3 million on construction projects in 2014 and $1.06 billion from 2014-18.

Construction projects underway in 2014 include work on a Juvenile Justice Center, the Sanchez Community Center and swimming pool and the Stallings St. Claude Community Center.

Projects in the bid and award phase include the Carrollton Hollygrove Senior Center, the Rosenwald Center and phase two of the Behrman Soccer Complex.

Council members took turns asking about projects in their districts.

Member Kristin Gisleson Palmer, for example, wanted a status report on the Behrman Soccer Complex. City officials said they hope to begin construction after next summer.

Member James Gray II commended city officials for work done on Joe Brown Park.

Members Susan Guidry and LaToya Cantrell wanted an update on plans for a new 2nd District police station in Gert Town. Deputy Mayor Cedric Grant said they are moving forward.

PUBLIC WORKS

The Department of Public Works is proposing to spend $25 million in 2014 on staff and routine maintenance.

Council members had questions about burned-out streetlights, described as a source of constant complaint from constituents.

Col. Mark Jernigan, the department director, said his agency has reduced the number of streetlight outages from 7,312 in October 2012 to 2,479 in September. He said his department had a $10 million one-time federal grant to tackle the problem in 2013.

Jernigan said his department expects to receive another $14.6 million in 2014 from credits held by Entergy New Orleans. The city would add $500,000 in general funds.

Jernigan said his department is also working to make the new streetlights more efficient. He said the city is converting the streetlights to LEDs, with a goal of 50 percent by the end of 2014. The streetlights have a five-year warranty.

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