After years, officials in Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s administration are finally closing in on the long-delayed goal of consolidating the operations of the city’s 911 call center, with the intent of improving stubbornly anemic response times.

As of earlier this year, 911 consolidation is former Deputy Mayor of Public Safety Jerry Sneed’s full-time job. Sneed expects the transition to be mostly complete by January, with full consolidation expected after Mardi Gras.

The City Attorney’s Office is expected to complete a draft cooperative endeavor agreement on consolidation in time for a special meeting of the Orleans Parish Communication District’s board of commissioners at the end of the month. The board could vote on it as early as November. The agreement would also have to be approved by the City Council

But it seems there’s one detail the city has not addressed yet: whether the move will violate legal and contractual protections now in place for city employees. An attorney for the city’s firefighters union brought up the issue Tuesday at a meeting of the board.

“There is a Civil Service issue here, which I’m hoping the proposed CEA addresses that,” Louis Robein said at the meeting.

The call center building itself is run by the Orleans Parish Communication District, which is governed by its board of commissioners. But the 911 operators work for city departments: police, fire or EMS. Consolidation would mean that all would work for the Communication District instead. As a result, they could stand to lose their statuses under the city’s Civil Service protection system,  according to an information sheet passed out by the board at the meeting.

“Members will not have Civil Service protection any longer, but will have another internal to OPCD policy that will be created to protect members. This process needs to be developed,” the document says.

The handout goes on to note that Civil Service protection, once earned, is understood to be a “property right” under the state constitution. The issue, it says, “needs to be researched what ramifications there are” when Civil Service status is removed.

In an interview after the meeting, Robein, who is also representing the firefighters in a decades-old lawsuit over tens of millions in back pay owed by the city, said he doesn’t believe the city can simply remove employees from the city’s Civil Service system.

Landrieu’s office did not immediately return requests for comment on this story.

The labor questions are especially tricky when it comes to the 23 fire employees working in the call center because the firefighters union has a collective bargaining agreement with the city.

“That covers fire communication officers, a  long-standing collective bargaining agreement that is still in effect,” Robein said in an interview with The Lens. “There’s issues as to whether or not the Fire Department through the mayor or otherwise has to negotiate with the union concerning this transition” or whether the consolidated Communication District has to assume the agreement.

Robein was also concerned about as much as $6,000 in supplemental pay that firefighters receive annually from the state.

But he doesn’t have answers to the questions because, he said, the city has not spoken to union representatives about 911 consolidation.

“Only that that we forced upon them today,” he said.

In the meeting, Robein said that police and fire employees in the call center are entitled under the state constitution to a separate Civil Service system. While the New Orleans city Civil Service Commission is typically understood to cover all city employees, including fire and police, Robein said it might no longer apply because the provision creating it applies to cities “having a population exceeding four hundred thousand.” A city employees group unsuccessfully used a similar argument earlier this year in an attempt to undo a series of Landrieu-backed changes to city personnel policies.

“Just a heads up,” Robein said.

Charles Maldonado

Charles Maldonado is the editor of The Lens. He previously worked as The Lens' government accountability reporter, covering local politics and criminal justice. Prior to joining The Lens, he worked for...