By Matt Davis, The Lens staff writer |

Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s top lieutenant faced pressure from the City Council Monday after stepping in to defend one of his department heads for only collecting 80 percent of the city’s trash fees.

Chief Administrative Officer Andy Kopplin stepped in to protect Chief Financial Officer Norman Foster after Councilwoman Stacy Head and Council President Jackie Clarkson barraged Foster with questions about the poor rate of collection, which has fallen by about 5 percent this year after the City Council doubled the fees in January, at Landrieu’s urging.

For years, the administration has said, residents were paying only about half of the cost of trash service, with the city picking up the other half through its general fund. With the fees now raised to the point of covering the service, council members had been counting on having the freed-up general fund money.

The problem is a loophole in the collection of trash fees, which has encouraged scofflaws to simply avoid paying the fees altogether, and in higher numbers, since the fees were raised.

Chief Financial Officer Norman Foster showed a chart showing the city has collected a lower percentage of sanitation fees this year since doubling the fee in January.

Though the city relies on the Sewerage & Water Board to bill and collect for the trash pickup, state law forbids the board from cutting off residents’ water if they don’t pay the trash fee. There’s little real penalty faced by someone who refuses to pay the fee.

Those scofflaws included, until recently, Councilwoman Cynthia Hedge-Morrell and her husband, Clerk of Criminal District Court Arthur Morrell, who did not pay their trash fees in over a decade, according to a story broken by our partners at FOX 8 TV.

Still, despite the slightly poorer collection rate this year, the city is bringing in more money from trash pickup, over $3 million a month, up from about $1.5 million a month in 2011.

Head pushed Kopplin to move faster to collect more of the fees, even after he suggested that the Landrieu administration is already working with a “level of urgency.”

Head asked Kopplin, pointedly, when he thought the trash fee collection issue would be fixed.

Chief Administrative Officer Andy Kopplin, left, has kept a watchful eye on the City Council’s budget hearings this year, frequently stepping in to defend department heads from attacks by City Council members. Photo by Matt Davis

Clarkson joined Head to work a rhetorical pincer attack on Kopplin for a few minutes, and the pair eventually extracted a promise from Kopplin that the problem would be “resolved in the next month” by contracting with debt collection agencies.

“If you’d said that first, we’d have left you alone,” Clarkson said, as Kopplin returned to his seat.

While trash fees remain a problem, the city has made strides in collecting delinquent sales tax revenue from hotels, motels, and bars, as well as other businesses this year. This follows a damning report issued by Inspector General Ed Quatrevaux last year, Foster said.

Field agent sales tax collection rose from $586,000 in 2010 to $2.4 million in 2011, and the city also issued subpoenas to 57 hotels and 183 alcoholic beverage outlets as a result of Quatrevaux’s report, raising $800,000 in previously unpaid sales tax revenue.

“We did learn a lot from the Inspector General’s report and that helped us a lot,” Foster said.

Traffic Court, the Registrar of Voters and the city’s taxicab permitting department also appeared before the City Council for hearings on their proposed budgets Monday.

Traffic Court has agreed to hand $2.3 million that has been sitting in its judicial expense fund over to the city to plug the hole in its budget deficit, Kopplin said — on the condition that the city will finance a renovation for traffic court in the coming years.

The Registrar of Voters will work with a 15 percent budget cut from $480,000 to $407,000 this year, but it may need additional assistance when it comes to notifying voters about the consequences of redistricting.

The taxicab department is continuing to make strides on permitting reform, said new boss Malachi Hull, and it will also live with a 5 percent budget cut. Hull said he looked forward to overhauling the taxi industry in New Orleans, and Kopplin echoed his sentiments, although Kopplin could not give a timeline for the reforms to be enacted.

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