Safety and Permits takes brunt of council criticism on Wednesday

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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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