The city should ignore the advice of its inspector general and not merge Municipal Court and Traffic Court because too many city employees would lose their jobs in the interest of government efficiency, the head of Traffic Court said today.

The candid remarks from Chief Judge Robert Jones came as New Orleans City Councilwoman Susan Guidry led the first of three scheduled budget-update meetings with criminal justice agencies this afternoon at City Hall.

Guidry floated the idea of combining the courts in an effort to cut costs and increase efficiency. That consolidation was strongly encouraged last year by city Inspector General Ed Quatrevaux, a key recommendation in a scathing report on the bloated bureaucracies of the courts.

Jones said that was a bad idea, given the number of people who’d lose their jobs in the service of efficiency. Guidry acknowledged the personnel hit but said the money saved in a merger could fund caseworkers or other personnel.

Separately, Jones said he’s looking at a deficit for the current year.

Jones said his court projects a $400,000 shortfall for the budget year, which ends Dec. 31. The court’s projected revenue for 2012 is down 10 percent from last year, he said, from $12.9 million to a projected $11.6 million this year.

So far this year, it has collected $6.5 million.

The court will process fewer citations this year, Jones said, in part because of reductions in the New Orleans Police Department’s Traffic Enforcement Division.

Jones told the committee he was cutting staff by about 15 percent, reducing courtroom security, and restructuring or eliminating tech support. Traffic Court’s 2012 spending prior to the cuts was $4.4 million; after the cuts the projection was trimmed by about $40,000.

Guidry wanted to know why the New Orleans Traffic Court has a 30 percent conviction rate on tickets, and she offered the idea that fewer people would go to court to fight tickets if they knew that they’d probably lose. She cited the Inspector General’s report, which also documented a common practice of knocking down serious moving violations down to simple violations.

Jones said that Guidry’s quarrel is with the City Attorney and New Orleans Police Department.

“These are not ‘our’ cases,” said Jones. “The judiciary is there to decide the facts. What comes before us is decided by” police and prosecutors, he said.

Indeed, Quatrevaux’s report said only the City Attorney has the power to dismiss charges without a trial. However, the report showed that judges – and even some court staffers – were dismissing charges without the knowledge of the City Attorney’s Office. As a result of Quatrevaux’s report, the court pledged to end that practice as of late last year.

In a separate part of the committee meeting, Municipal Court Chief Judge Desiree Charbonnet was joined by Judge Paul Sens, who just stepped down from the court’s top administrative position, and two other Municipal Court representatives. The conversation quickly turned to the dispute between the council and the court over control of the court’s judicial-expense fund. The fund is used at the court’s discretion and has been used to fund such things as capital projects for the court.

Guidry has advocated for turning over any year-end surplus to the city’s general fund, a move opposed by Sens. Under state law, that money is now divided equally at the end of the fiscal year between the city and the court.

According to budget documents, the Municipal Court will have an estimated balance of $750,000 in the fund by the end of the year. On June 30, there was $872,000 in the fund.

Orleans Public Defenders has faced the rockiest budgetary road of the three agencies called before the committee Wednesday.

Its budget is pieced together from an array of sources – traffic cameras tickets, seat belt tickets and other sources.

The indigent-services organization found itself earlier this year with about $1 million less in revenues than it had expected, which forced a series of cuts to personnel and services in order to maintain skeletal operations.

Chief Public Defender Derwyn Bunton said he was able to close the gap with “draconian” cuts, including a hiring freeze, cuts to operating expenses, employee-benefit reductions, furloughs and a layoff of about one-third of the staff. About 100 pro bono attorneys were enlisted to shore up services for indigent defendants.

Marjorie Esman of the American Civil Liberties Union was the lone public commenter at the meeting, and she directed her concern squarely at the budgeting scheme at Orleans Public Defenders.

“I wanted to point out that while not all aspects of the criminal justice system are Constitutionally mandated, the OPD is,” Esman said.

She urged the council to change the budgeting protocol used to fund the office so it is not reliant on such things as the number of seat-belt tickets written by the New Orleans Police Department.

Tom Gogola

Tom Gogola covered criminal justice for The Lens from February 2012 to May 2013. He is a veteran journalist and editor who has written on a range of subjects for many publications, including Newsday, New...