Government & Politics
 

Police chief, council differ on raises, though talk is just hypothetical

New Orleans needs more police officers on the street. Public officials could use more energy-efficient, newer vehicles. And folks who call 311 for a problem should be able to get timely solutions.

The City Council agreed with Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s administration on these three points Wednesday during a seven-hour round of budget hearings for the New Orleans Police Department, the Chief Administrative Office, and on funding for host of miscellaneous departments.

But council members and city officials all, too, agreed that there’s just not enough money to  meet those needs.

It’s become a drumbeat of these annual budget hearings: department heads lament a lack of funding, and City Council members demand that they do more with less. Though talk of doing more with less didn’t dominate the criminal justice conversation today – in fact, Landrieu’s 2014 budget calls for increased funding for the police and fire departments – it certainly wasn’t far from the debate during that presentation, or when other departments presented.

The council will hear presentations from various departments over the next few weeks and is expected to adopt a budget on Nov. 21. That budget will go into effect Jan. 1.

New Orleans Police Department

It’s a sentiment shared among many who wish to see the city’s crime drop – put more cops on the street. And while City Council members and New Orleans Police Chief Ronal Serpas agreed on that during a two-and-a-half budget presentation Wednesday, they disagreed over the best way to make that happen.

Retention is one of the department’s biggest problems: Serpas confirmed that this year alone, NOPD has lost 89 sworn officers. In total, staff has decreased by 22 percent since May 2010 – from more than 1,500 then to just about 1,200.

“Three hundred less people at work is a significant fissure,” he told the council.

The budget he’s proposing this year would provide full funding to support 1,260 officers and 225 civilian staff, but it’s still about $770,000 more than the department received last year. About $300,000 of that money would go to advertising and recruitment efforts, which Serpas said could let NOPD hire a company to help it understand the hiring market, although he later told the council he didn’t yet know how he would spend the $300,000.

Council members Stacy Head and Cynthia Hedge-Morrell agreed that retention was a huge problem, and they both said they believed pay raises were the best way to combat it. And, Head said, “sorry to the big dogs,” but those pay raises should be limited to officers under the rank of captain.

A plan produced by the council’s Fiscal Office would raise officers pay by 10 percent a year for the next three years, for a total cost of $24 million.

Serpas disagreed with limiting it to certain officers: “It’s so easy to get caught up in a bourgeois-proletariat argument,” but the senior ranking officers shouldn’t be disincentivized, he argued.

Either way, there’s no funding to make a plan like that happen, council President Jackie Clarkson and Serpas both said – so the argument was purely hypothetical.

Chief Administrative Office

When presenting his $1.4 million proposed executive office budget, CAO Andy Kopplin was quick to point out that his office is on track to decrease the deficit in the city’s fund balance by $15.5 million by the end of the year, and that his office ensured that there were no mid-year cuts in 2013.

The budget he’s proposing for his office is slightly less than the $1.5 million he received last year.

Though council members were mostly quiet after his budget presentation, discussion piped back up during fleet manager Jeff Cashill’s talk about the equipment maintenance division, which is asking for 11 percent less cash than it got last year. While Cashill touted among his office’s accomplishments the purchase of 100 new police cars for NOPD last year, council member Susan Guidry wondered if the department could upgrade and repair other public officials’ cars.

Guidry’s hybrid public car’s motor died, she noted. And the car she has now has a huge crack in the windshield: “It could fall in on me. So that’s the status of our vehicles as I see them.”

Cashill said his department evaluates if it will pay for repairs based on whether those repairs exceed the market value of the car. If the repairs are too expensive, they dispose of the car. They’ve gotten rid of more than 130 cars this year, but haven’t replaced them, “because we don’t have the money to replace them.” The city bought NOPD’s new fleet with FEMA money, Cashill’s presentation noted.

Guidry and Hedge-Morrell asked whether the department could apply for federal grants to help it make its public cars more fuel efficient, pointing out that the Regional Transit Authority has already invested in this technology for its buses.

Cashill said he’s looked into the alternative fuels, but “of course you have to spend money to get that [grant] money.” The city would have to set up fueling stations, among other costs.

Hedge-Morrell pushed back: “We’re becoming the ‘new city,’ so let’s get new-city smart.”

Information Technology and Innovation

The talk of increasing services continued into the information technology and innovation presentation, which helps implement the city’s 311 services. Chief Information Officer Allen Square Jr. said that software that would let the public see all the 311 calls and projects they have working. But “that product is not ready for prime-time,” he said, although he anticipates that it will be ready some time next year.

Councilwoman Kristin Gisleson Palmer asked how the department is working to “manage people’s expectations.”

“People assume things are going to be fixed within a certain amount of time,” she said.

Square said that his office does a good job of relaying as much information as it knows about a particular issue. But for issues like potholes or when a streetlight goes out, it’s really dependent on cash, he argued.

“And when it comes to these maintenance requests, there’s just not enough funding in the City of New Orleans to meet their expectations, at least not right now.”

The council will consider budgets for the Orleans Parish Sheriff’s Office and NOPD consent decree tomorrow, among other departments.

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