Mayor Ray Nagin announced his decision in January to close city offices indefinitely on Friday, groans were heard far and wide. Need a construction permit? That’ll have to wait until Monday. Want to file your homestead exemption? Talk to a City Council member? Hold those thoughts. It seemed like the only people not rolling their eyes were the city employees who had just won the long-weekend lottery.
The Friday closures were projected to save $27,000 a month at City Hall alone. Overall, the city expected that closing city offices excluding non-emergency services such as police and firefighter but including New Orleans Recreation Department offices, neighborhood service centers, and health clinics, would save $460,000 annually in utility, janitorial and security costs. New Orleans Public Libraries were also put on the compressed workweek, though they are not figured into the city’s savings projection. Instead of working five seven-hour days – yes city employees are on a 35-hour-a-week schedule – employees were instructed to work four 8-3/4-hour days. The schedule applies to all administrative employees including those who work in offices leased by the city in buildings that remain open on Fridays.
Sixteen three-day weekends later, the city has made utility-monitoring reports for the first two months of the experiment available to The Lens in response to a public-records request. It took the city more than a month to fulfill the request – not the three days required by law – or we’d be looking at the March figures, too.
So far, what we have found is that a four-day City Hall indeed costs less to operate than a five-day version.
In January, the electricity bill for 1300 Perdido St. dropped 21 percent to $42,126 from $53,230 one month earlier, in December. In February, the bill was $40,830.
The savings represent a rare moment of “I told you so” for the Nagin administration, which introduced the four-day workweek to balance the budget without alienating voters with service cuts, or forcing city workers to take an unpopular 12-day furlough.
Even if no one is contesting the savings, some taxpayers, including City Council President Arnie Fielkow, question whether the lower bills are worth the frustrations experienced by New Orleanians who show up at City Hall only to find the doors locked and the lights out.
“I can tell you that my staff loved being off on Fridays, but I don’t think that is the best interest of taxpayers,” Fielkow said this week. (City Council staffers who spoke on a condition of anonymity confirmed that yes, they did love being off on Fridays.)
You don’t have to say that twice to Joel Ross, an architect who never left New Orleans after graduating from Tulane University in 2006 and recently bought a house on St. Claude Avenue. He says that keeping City Hall dark on Fridays creates added stress for builders and designers who operate on strict timelines dependent on permits and licenses from the city.
“A lot of architecture, engineering, and construction deadlines are measured weekly, not daily, so even if it’s good for city employees, the four-day work week puts pressure on everyone else,” Ross said.
Gil Benedek manages community programs for the Neighborhood Partnership Network. For him, the cost of the compressed week is the lost time for council members to help their constituents.
“The inability to call and talk with City Council persons and staff in a formal capacity is frustrating,” he said. “They are busy as it is and having one less day is not helpful.”
Mayor-elect Mitch Landrieu said he is still considering whether to reopen city offices on Friday.