By Jessica Williams, The Lens staff writer
Continuing a two-week trend of top city officials asking for more money in next year’s budget, leaders of both the Law and the Safety and Permits departments shook their tin cups Tuesday at a City Council budget hearing.
And continuing its own trend, the council asked the already cash-strapped departments to do more with less.
In addition to law and safety presentations, public benefit corporation officials, including those from New Orleans Building Corp. and the Municipal Yacht Harbor Corp., outlined their budget plans for the coming year. While council members entreated these presenters to find ways to give the city some of their , officials were quick to cite laws prohibiting the city from gaining profits from corporation revenue.
The Law Department
City Attorney Nanette Jolivette-Brown asked the city for a little more than $12 million. If approved, the money would hire four more part-time attorneys and additional support staff, which would address an increased caseload caused by a possible switch in prosecution of certain misdemeanors from criminal court to municipal court. These misdemeanors would include first-time marijuana use, among others. As of October, the proposed ordinances were held up because District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro and others wanted to work on the proposals’ wording.
Brown said that each of the city’s 12 part-time municipal and traffic attorneys handle 861 cases a month, and if the proposed ordinance is enacted, 16 new cases a day would be added to each attorney’s workload. If new attorneys are hired, the workload would go down to 785 cases a month for each attorney.
After Brown told the council that each part-time lawyer was paid $33,000 annually plus benefits, Councilwoman Stacy Head was quick to ask why part-time lawyers are entitled to benefits packages.
“The [advantages] to the city of having part-time [attorneys] would be in part to not have to pay benefits,” Head said, calling the benefits a “strain” on the city’s resources.
Brown responded that these attorneys are well-experienced and appreciated for their work. This experience “doesn’t come overnight,” she said, but the department would take Head’s concerns into consideration.
Head also asked why the law department hasn’t centralized most of its services and why one executive assistant in the law department receives a $50,000 annual salary. Deputy Chief Administrative Officer Cary Grant said that while the department does all of its human resources work in-house, it “hasn’t gotten that far yet” in centralizing the rest of its services, and Jolivette-Brown responded that the executive assistant in question had been with the city for 25 years.
In addition to these concerns, Councilman Jon Johnson raised the point that red tape in the current legal process lets illegal liquor permit holders work the system to keep the alcohol flowing in their businesses.
Brown agreed, and said that the process needs to be looked at again, and ordinances may have to be amended to stop this. Councilwoman-at-large Jackie Clarkson said that if need be, the protocol should be to “yank the permits first, tell us what we need to do later.”
Safety and Permits
Safety and Permits deputy director Bhola Dhume outlined the department’s plans for the Bureau of Ground Transportation, which included an upgraded cab fleet system in which taxi cabs are equipped with GPS systems and credit and debit card machines. He also mentioned getting newer cars, for both safety and aesthetic reasons. These changes would put the city on equal footing with many other big cities across the country, Dhume said. In total, Safety and Permits requested $5.7 million in general funds, with $1.2 million going towards Ground Transportation.
While the council didn’t have much insight to offer to the new plans, they were quick to quiz Dhume as to why several standards within the Ground Transportation bureau had not been met, including the regular training of cab drivers, as required in city ordinance.
Dhume responded that the last time cab driver training was held was “before his time.”
“[Training] has to happen,” Councilwoman Kristin Giselson Palmer said. She then asked Dhume for a training schedule for the remainder of the year.
Palmer also asked Dhume about the current system for inspection of carriage horses and mules, saying that the system “isn’t working,” and that there have been repetitive issues and complaints in the French Quarter regarding these carriages.
Public Benefit Corporations
The New Orleans Building Corp.
Council President Arnie Fielkow and Clarkson were interested in the future of the New Orleans Building Corp., to which Director Cedric Grant replied that the Union Passenger Terminal plans will make for a “bright future” for the corporation and for the city because the terminal will become “the hub of one of the key ways that you enter New Orleans other than by car.”
The agency owns the terminal, as well as the World Trade Center building, its parking garage near the Hilton Hotel and the new Revinventing the Crescent riverfront park now planned downriver of the Gov. Nicholls Street Wharf.
The Municipal Yacht Harbor Corp.
Head noted that it is “unfair” that public-private benefit corporations get to use city property but don’t have to pay property taxes, and that to compensate, corporations such as the Municipal Yacht Harbor should “spin off” some money to the city’s general fund. To this, Municipal Yacht Harbor President John Manard said that the city doesn’t have the “legal right” to request money from public benefit corporations.
Head then responded that though there is a legal prohibition, it is not an “insurmountable hurdle.”
Fielkow was more concerned with the fact that boathouses are being leased at a rate of $3,000 a year, a rate that was set, Manard said, in the 1950s. Fielkow called the low leasing prices a “bad business deal” for the city.