By Ariella Cohen, The Lens staff writer |

Despite significant reform to the way the city collects fines, taxes and permitting fees, New Orleans collected slightly fewer dollars in the first six months of the year than it did in the same period of 2010. Even so, the city is on track to end the year in the black, Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s top financial officer told the City Council Budget Committee on Thursday.

“We look OK,” said Norman Foster, the city’s chief financial officer said.

Cautiously optimistic, Foster said that Landrieu’s unpopular decision to raise property taxes, combined with a relatively strong local economy, is helping the city nearly keep pace with revenue projections for this year. Foster came before the council committee two days after New Orleans Chief Economist Jerome Lomba predicted that the city would take in only $300,000 less than projected in the year’s $488 million general operating budget. The projected shortfall is a tiny fraction of the $9 million deficit the city faced at the end of 2010.

Through May 31, the city took in $23 million in licensing and permitting fees from New Orleans businesses and residents compared to $24.5 million in that period last year. That 1 percent drop combines with a 9 percent  decline in the city’s fine and forfeits collection, and a 4 percent drop in tax revenue, a revenue and expenditure report issued Thursday shows.

Councilwoman Stacy Head grills Chief Administrative Officer Andy Kopplin (L) and Chief Financial Officer Norman Foster (R) on the city’s ability to raise more revenue.

Councilwoman Stacy Head challenged the city to collect more fines and fees by towing more abandoned vehicles. Cleaning up junked cars could bring in needed revenue while improving the quality of life in neighborhoods, she said.

“We have a Lincoln that’s been in Central City so long its covered in grass,” Head said.

It’s not the first time Head has implored the city to get tough with towing, and Chief Administrative Officer Andy Kopplin reassured the councilwoman that she isn’t the only one paying attention.

“We are diligently tracking our collection of abandoned vehicles, and I am personally watching it,” he said.

Kopplin said the city has “significantly outperformed” previous years using outside contractors as well as Department of Public Works employees that have traditionally performed the task.

Earlier this year, the council changed the city code to let the administration  hire contractors to tow nuisance and abandoned vehicles. A City Hall performance evaluation issued by the mayor this morning totals the number of tows so far this year at 228.  The ResultsNOLA progress report (PDF) anticipates the figure to increase in the next six months after new strategies are implemented.  A goal will be set after changes are made, according to the report.

Clad in his trademark cowboy boots, Kopplin stressed the positive but also addressed challenges facing the city as it faces mounting employee health-care costs. He touted the administration’s move to get all public retirees that are Medicare eligible on Medicare rolls.

“We shifted the bulk of their claims cost and liabilities to Uncle Sam,” Kopplin said.

He estimates the change has saved New Orleans taxpayers $5 million on health care costs so far this year. The CAO said that the city is now working to “get in front of” a potential $6.8 million deficit in the New Orleans Police Department pension fund. He said the city is examining the fund to identify the depth of the problem.

“In one month, it got paid three times,” he said to highlight confusion surrounding the fund.

“We are at a point of much higher stability (then previously), but health care costs keep rising so we must be vigilant, “ he added.

In line with national trends, New Orleans officials are also encouraging public employees to make changes in their lifestyles that could help lower health-care costs, and of course, keep them feeling better.

“We are working to get healthier options in the vending machines and at the snack bar. We want to make it easier for employees to exercise and quit smoking,” said Jean Morris Anderson, chief operations manager for the city’s benefits program.

The city has already partnered with Weight Watchers and pharmaceutical companies on voluntary weight-loss, smoking cessation and diabetes management programs, she said.

The Landrieu administration interest in seeing healthier grub at City Hall came as surprise to at least one building worker —  the man who runs its snack bar.

The Landrieu administration hopes to lower health care costs by encouraging city employees to eat better, smoke less and exercise more. Meanwhile, the top sellers at the snack bar at City Hall are sodas and sugary snacks.The shop’s manager Leon Indovina estimates that he sells 20 Hubigs pies a day, and 200 sodas.

“I never even see them in here,” snack bar manager Leon Indovina said.

Nonetheless, he said he would consider bringing in healthier options.

“I could see popcorn selling,” he said.