Government & Politics

Firefighters say city’s safety is at risk; Sheriff’s budget far from requested

New Orleans City Council’s hearings on the 2014 budget continued on Friday with some of the most troublesome parts of Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s proposed spending plan. First up was the New Orleans Fire Department budget, preceded by a protest by firefighters who say the department is dangerously understaffed.

That was followed by fire pensions and the Orleans Parish Sheriff’s budget, the two biggest potential weak spots in Landrieu’s $504 million proposed budget. As written, it doesn’t take into account $17.5 million in overdue fire pension payments, nor does it include any money to pay for a federal consent decree over Orleans Parish Prison.

New Orleans Fire Department


About an hour before Friday’s hearing was set to begin, members of the city’s firefighters union — all clad in yellow T-shirts reading “Support New Orleans Fire Fighters” —  gathered outside City Hall to protest the department’s 2014 proposed budget allocation. Their main complaint with the department was Landrieu’s fire personnel budget, which funds 677 full-time staff for the department, down from 694 this year. As union president Nick Felton noted in an interview with The Lens last week, former fire chief Charles Parent told the New Orleans City Council that the department could not safely go below 694 during his budget hearing last year.

Firefighters protested outside City Hall before the start of Fridays budget hearings, which looked at the Fire Department's budget and under-funded pension.

Charles Maldonado

Firefighters protested outside City Hall before the start of Fridays budget hearings, which looked at the Fire Department's budget and under-funded pension.

Felton said that many of the city’s ladder companies are routinely running with three firefighters, even though the National Fire Protection Association recommends four. Felton provided a graph purporting to show that more than 20 companies were running with three firefighters on some days in August and September.

“If you don’t have four, you need more,” the group chanted.

During his budget presentation, Fire Chief Timothy McConnell admitted to council members that companies are working below the national recommendations. However, when Councilwoman Jackie Clarkson asked whether he needed a boost in personnel, he said he didn’t.

“I believe we’re staffed properly,” McConell said, eliciting loud boos from the union members filling the Council Chamber.

Councilwoman Cynthia Hedge-Morrell was skeptical, criticizing the recent closure of Ladder 3 on Old Gentilly Road in her district. She said she worried the department was funded based only on the needs of city’s Census population, not the large number of daily suburban commuters, tourists and undocumented workers that make up its daily population.

“Everyone is under the gun to cut back, but there are some things the city of New Orleans should not cut back on,” she said.

McConnell said the department was working more efficiently as the result of a redeployment system introduced this year. He said the number of fires in the city has decreased by more than half over the past decade, from 746 in 2002 to 360 in 2012.

McConnell also said the number of lost time injuries has steadily decreased this year. The fire department accounts for most of the city’s workers’ compensation costs, which have risen drastically over the past two years. The department’s modest proposed budget increase is set to cover those claims, rather than operational or recruitment costs.

A single recruit class of 24 would likely replace most of the staff the fire department loses to attrition per year. McConnell told the council Landrieu’s budget, which funds five recruit classes for the police, doesn’t allocate anything for fire recruitment. McConnell hopes to secure a federal Staffing for Adequate Fire & Emergency Response grant to pay for a class.

“I hope we get the SAFER grant,” said Felton in his response. “But there are hundreds and hundreds of people applying for SAFER grants … We cannot expect the federal government to bail us out of this problem.

Felton told the council that the city needs at least 190 on-duty firefighters per day. It only has 161, according to McConnell’s presentation.

“If you love us, if you respect us, don’t sell us out with three,” Felton said.

New Orleans Firefighters Pension and Relief Fund

According to fire pension secretary-treasurer Tommy Meagher, the amount of unallocated money the city owes to the “new” fire pension system, which covers employees hired after 1968, will grow to about $25 million by 2014.

Landrieu’s budget, however, only pays an annual contribution of $9 million, as it did this year.

That amount “pays roughly half of what we need to pay out to the guys who are already retired,” Meagher said. “An additional $9 million would at least stop the bleeding, and at least put us into a position where we are not cannibalizing this fund.”

Not included in Landrieu’s proposal is about $17.5 million in back funding for 2012, which the city has fought in court. Meagher said the pension board has until December to file a suit to recoup money the city owes it for this year.

The pension system is only about 40 percent funded, compared to 75 percent for the pension fund that covers City Hall employees. The Chief Administrative Officer said that is not the city’s fault alone. He said the fund’s board has invested irresponsibly, including almost $50 million with Fletcher Asset Management, a now bankrupt hedge fund firm.

Col. Jerry Sneed, Landrieu’s deputy mayor of public safety, said the city is in active negotiations, which he said, he hopes will result in a “workable solution for both parties.”

Orleans Parish Sheriff’s Office


Sheriff Marlin Gusman is requesting nearly $13 million more than Mitch Landrieu has offered in his 2014 budget proposal, including about $11 million to pay for increased costs for the consent decree.

Landrieu’s budget of $28.7 million includes about $16 million in per diem funding, paid out per inmate per day. Gusman, however, eliminates the per diem system, instead relying on a traditional preset allocation of $41.4 million from the city. That includes the city’s portion of housing costs, medical costs and city payments for providing court security. It also includes about $11.2 million for “consent decree related costs” and $3.3 million for “jail operation costs,” according to Gusman’s budget request.

Landrieu has not allocated any additional money to pay for increased jail costs related to the consent decree. The increases include new medical and security staff, plus raises for current staff. The New Orleans Office of Inspector General, which gave a presentation on the sheriff’s budget, warned against giving Gusman any increases.

In an report released in June, the Office of Inspector General could not determine how Gusman was spending city funds, because they were intermingled with state and federal funds in his budget, which, Assistant Inspector General Nadienne Van Dyke said, violates the Louisiana Local Government Budget Act.

“The council will not be able to effectively budget the sheriff’s office unless it receives detailed budget information as required” by the law, Van Dyke said.

Gusman said the report was flawed and full of inaccuracies. He said other agencies that have examined his books have not made similar findings.

“We keep separate accounts,” he said. “We have been audited by FEMA. We have been audited by the legislative auditor. We have our own external auditor.”

The council also heard from jail consultant James Austin, who said the new jail facility under construction and set to open next year will be inadequate for the city’s needs. First, he said because it “doesn’t have adequate medical and mental health facilities,” but also because he believes the 1,438-bed facility won’t be large enough.

The council passed an ordinance in 2011 capping any new jail construction at 1,438 beds. The ordinance also required adequate mental health and medical care.

Landrieu has only recently publicly declared his support for a new jail project citing the need for health care, but as The Lens first reported last year, the city and Gusman have long been in talks about the new facility. As early as summer 2012, Kopplin began suggesting publicly that the council could “revisit” the cap.

The average daily population at the jail is about 2,300 inmates now. And if current patterns hold, that will not change. If, however, the jail can shave about 445 sentenced state inmates and if arrest rates decrease, he said the city can hope to get down to an average daily population of about 1,600.

“You do have probably the highest incarceration rate in the country for a large city,” Austin said, putting the blame on what he characterized as an unnecessarily high arrest rate. He also encouraged criminal judges to release more low-risk defendants on their own recognizance rather than setting bonds, a goal of the city’s pretrial services program, which has come under fire from the bail bond industry.

“My concern is that we have the proper facility,” Gusman told the council. “To help those who need help and to secure those we need to secure.”

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