Government & Politics

Safety and Permits takes brunt of council criticism on Wednesday

Wednesday marked the beginning of the City Council hearings on Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s $491 million proposed 2013 budget.

The first agenda item of the afternoon was the longest, with two hours of questions, accusations and confusion regarding the Department of Safety and Permits. Council members expressed frustration with several aspects, including response time and constituent complaints.

Deputy Mayor Michelle Thomas and Acting Director of Safety and Permits Pura Bascos took the heat for most of the hearing.

Thomas was there to explain how much progress the department has made in creating a “one-stop shop” for permitting, a promise that has been a long time in coming. The administration promises it will be ready in early 2013.

Along with other improvements, the department plans to roll out a new permitting database that will track all information related to a particular address. The database is supposed to clear up confusion between departments.

But the announcement of a new software system did little to satisfy Councilwoman Cynthia Hedge-Morrell, who expressed frustration with the department.

“Computers can’t do what people can do,” she said.

She asked why the department seems to address problems only when it comes before the council.

Hedge-Morrell cited various instances in which she believes zoning employees had erred.

“Your people need to know the code,” she admonished Bascos. “Tell them to stop being so friendly with the contractors.”

Councilwomen Stacy Head and Diana Bajoie pressed Thomas and Bascos about illegal construction and other code violations that occur on weekends, when no inspectors are working.

Head asked for a number to call — though no one would be available to answer on the weekend anyway. There was a prolonged silence until Thomas told Head she would get her the number. This is at least the third time Head has made the request.

The normally quiet Councilman Ernest Charbonnet piped up: “I am going to be calling you about a certain strip mall in the east,” he said.

The Historic District Landmarks Commission, Vieux Carré Commission and City Planning Commission followed. Though the budgets of those departments are lower than what was approved for 2012, they’re in line with the mid-year cuts implemented when revenue projections for this year fell short.

Earlier in the day, senior citizens turned out in droves to support the budget request turned in by the Council on Aging. The city provides just over $500,000 to the Council, with additional monies coming from federal grants.

Also in the morning session: Total Community Action, the Essence Music Festival, the Louisiana Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and the Arts Council of New Orleans.

On the schedule for Thursday:

  • Law Department
  • Civil Service
  • Office of the Inspector General
  • Juvenile Court
  • Coroner’s Office
  • Human Services Department
  • Registrar of Voters
  • French Market Corp. & Upper Pontabla Building Restoration Corp.
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About Karen Gadbois

Karen Gadbois co-founded The Lens. She now covers New Orleans government issues and writes about land use. With television reporter Lee Zurik she exposed widespread misuse of city recovery funds and led to guilty pleas in federal court. Her work attracted some of journalism's highest honors, including a Peabody Award, an Alfred I. duPont-Columbia Award and a gold medal from Investigative Reporters and Editors. She can be reached at (504) 606-6013.

  • Dave Holt

    I have had to deal with the Safety and Permits Department three times in the last few months for three different reasons. The first time was a waste of my time. The second time was even more of a waste of my time. Why did I even try the third time? My mom always said “The third time’s a charm”. Well, as much as I hate to say it, the third time was the worst. I spent four hours being sent from one floor to the next and then back again to where I started. Quite frankly it’s embarrassing. And, I was at two of the City Council meetings when the Council was told that the One Stop Shop permitting department was almost ready to go. No one loves New Orleans more than me. Lots of people as much but no one more. I just don’t understand how inept we allow this department as well as others to be. And do you have to have televisions in every waiting room with soap operas and New Jersey Housewives on? It doesn’t help. It makes it worse. I’m going to cut this short because I know I’m in a bad mood. I spent five hours today to get a permit that I need to use for three hours. The quote of the day from a city employee was “You came in on a Friday to get a permit?”
    Next time I’ll know better.