By Matt Davis, The Lens staff writer

The City Council focused on its public-safety budget today, scrutinizing the money it spends on its police and fire departments, ambulance, and emergency preparedness.

Improved relations with the New Orleans Police Department

The council showed a rare degree of warmth toward the New Orleans Police Department this morning, even as the trial of five current and former New Orleans police officers began in U.S. District Court over the shooting and burning of Henry Glover, an Algiers man, after Hurricane Katrina.

Police Superintendent Ronal Serpas said his department would stop arresting people on warrants for relatively minor crimes — potentially saving up to $2 million a year for taxpayers.

Councilwoman Jackie Clarkson thanked Serpas for his efforts to clean up the police department, which she said was part of the city becoming more attractive to young people in their twenties than it has been since she can remember.

The department is well placed to focus even more on violent criminals next year, Serpas said. But it should also be able to focus on more community policing, too. Councilwoman Stacy Head had a thought on that front.

“I firmly believe that the murderer also litters,” Head said, encouraging Serpas to get officers to issue summonses to people who toss cigarettes. Serpas agreed.

This time last year, former superintendent Warren Riley was sparring with council members over an $11 million proposed cut in the city’s police budget, and in January, he accused Head of calling him a racial epithet in an e-mail message. A subsequent investigation by The Times-Picayune could find no evidence to back up Riley’s claim, and Head vehemently denied it.

This year, the NOPD is likely to get all of its $118 million budget request, up $700,000 over last year. Serpas drew the approval of the council by saying he plans to stick rigorously to his budget, and that it was a point of pride to do so.

“I’m just glad you’re not up here saying you can’t do what you want to do because you don’t have enough money,” Clarkson said.

Plea for police early-warning system

Civil-rights attorney Mary Howell asked for council to re-fund an early-warning system designed to identify bad police officers by analyzing complaints against them.

“We had a functioning early warning system for a minute,” Howell said. “We haven’t had one for 10 years. If we do it properly, it will save us money.”

Howell said that the city finds itself defending the same kind of lawsuits, involving the same policies, “and nothing changes.” But an early-warning system could pay for itself.

Councilwoman Susan Guidry will follow up on the issue.

“It may be an item that we can add, mid-year,” Head said.

Public safety training complex in the works

“What we envision is a public safety training complex,” Deputy Mayor Jerry Sneed said. “And can you think of this, maybe a police officer and a fire department person sitting in the same room and learning what each other does?”

The council is working with FEMA to “package” the center, Sneed said, although he did not give a timeline for the center to be delivered. The center would likely include a new crime lab, Sneed said.

Redeploying police officers

The New Orleans Police Department will benefit from a $300,000 grant from the federal government to purchase new deployment software. The software will analyze where the most calls for service happen, potentially showing that the department’s district lines should be redrawn.

“Quite often, when we look at these programs, it’ll change fundamentally the way we do business,” Serpas said.  “We’ve gotta get past this throwing darts at a wall to decide on the deployment of our officers.”

The aim is to provide an equal amount of work, and free time, so that every officer can engage in community policing. Communities become very attached to their districts, and the boundaries haven’t been changed in 50 years, Serpas said.

Councilman Jon Johnson asked if the redistricting might mean more officers, or a satellite station, for the Lower 9th Ward. Serpas said he would wait to look at the data.

Tight budgets mean many fire stations still working in temporary trailers

Johnson pushed the New Orleans Fire Department to replace temporary stations soon, and Clarkson asked for a list of all the fire stations not complete, and when they are scheduled for completion. The fire department seemed glad to hear enthusiasm on this front from the council.

“These are my people in those trailers, and I will push on this issue,” Chief Charles Parent said.

Some doubted his ability to deliver, however.

“My bet is we will still be having the same conversations when we meet here next year,” said Fire Fighters Association Local 632 President Nick Felton.

Chief Administrative Officer Andy Kopplin rebutted Felton’s skepticism.

“I’m quite confident that this time next year, Mr. Felton will have lots of positive things to talk about with regards to those capital funds,” Kopplin said.

The department will recruit 78 firefighters this year using $4 million in federal grants, bringing the total number of firefighters to 762.

The department is likely to get $77 million this year, the same as last year.

Councilwoman Cynthia Hedge-Morrell drew applause from firefighters in the audience for suggesting that the city should charge people putting on special events for fire coverage, and put the money back into the fire department’s budget.

“I’m talking about the big events, the Disney parades, the NFL parades…when we’re scheduling these events, there needs to be a charge added,” Hedge-Morrell said. “But I don’t think the solution is you pull a fire truck from one district and pray.”

Sneed said it was a good idea.

There are also ongoing concerns about the department’s pension liabilities. The rise in pension costs “puts us in a serious problematic position in future years,” Kopplin said.

The council also pushed the department to try to find money for civil-service testing, instead of promoting without it. The department used to do the testing before promoting its people, but the money has dried up.

Civil-service testing could help to avoid an old-boy network where promotions are concerned, council said.

“I think the fact that we’re in 2010 and we’ve first got two women captains shows that there was a need to have that there,” Hedge-Morrell said.

Ambulances for eastern New Orleans  and theLower 9th Ward

Johnson stressed the need for an ambulance in eastern New Orleans and the Lower 9th Ward at all times.

Johnson brought up Landrieu’s appearance at an August budget forum in eastern New Orleans, when the mayor promised to station ambulances in the district, which isn’t served by a hospital.

“That community needs to have a unit out there at all times.That was the commitment. That was the promise that was made,” Johnson said. “I just hope we can live up to that commitment that was made.”

EMS representatives said those neighborhoods are being better served by ambulances than ever before, but that the service is very busy, so it’s not practical to simply park an ambulance in the areas.

“I think they are covering the area. I think the citizens out in New Orleans East are being taken care of,” Sneed said, offering to get the calls data for Johnson over the coming days.

City may bid out contract for City Hall security

The city is paying Sheriff Marlin Gusman for security, but Guidry wondered aloud whether that might represent the best value.

“I’m not saying we want someone on $10 an hour running around City Hall with a gun,” Guidry said. But nevertheless, there might be some savings to be achieved.

Sneed agreed.

“We’re looking to see if there’s something better,” Sneed said. “We haven’t yet entered into a contract for 2011.”

City will spend $4 million on gas

The city expects to spend $4 million on fuel for city vehicles next year, despite saving 1 million vehicle miles and $250,000 on fuel because of a new policy that sharply reduced take-home cars.

The city will use 2.1 million gallons of gas in 2011, down from 2.3 million gallons.

Council President Arnie Fielkow said he hopes the city is tracking the usage of its fuel. A report by the city’s Inspector General said some employees were getting enough fuel in a single day to fill up their tank many times over.

The city’s vehicle-maintenance division also hopes to be able to bring 95 percent of city vehicles into service, up from 90 percent this year, with a new tracking system. It does not expect to have built a new repair shop by the end of the year, however — the current repair shop sustained serious damage during Hurricane Katrina and continues to face a serious backlog in repairs.