AG opinion: 911 and 311 merger, in effect for months, is ‘improper,’ doesn’t follow state law

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An opinion issued late last month by the Louisiana Attorney General’s Office says that the recent merger of New Orleans’ 911 and 311 services doesn’t appear to follow state laws governing the uses of the 911 call center.

And though the merger was done in part to save the city money — shifting 311 expenses to the Orleans Parish Communication District, which runs the 911 center — the AG’s office says the Communication District shouldn’t be using its own funds on non-emergency 311 calls.

Legal opinions from the Attorney General’s Office, while not legally binding, are considered important legal guidance for state and local government agencies.

But communication district Executive Director Tyrell Morris, told The Lens in an interview that the opinion won’t impact the arrangement, which went into effect in January.

“We do not believe this opinion will change any current agreement,” he said.

Mayor LaToya Cantrell proposed moving 311 — a catch-all non-emergency service request line — into the 911 call center last year, as part of her 2019 budget proposal.

Under the plan, 911 operators would handle  both emergency calls and 311 calls, such as resident complaints about clogged catch basins or broken streetlights. The move would allow the 311 phone service to operate 24 hours a day, rather than being restricted to City Hall business hours. What’s more, the city would no longer have to pay $900,000 per year for 311, Cantrell said. The Communication District would include the service in its own budget.

The Communication District’s governing board approved the plan in November. And the City Council approved it in its last meeting of 2018.

Lisa Hudson, the city’s personnel director, sought an opinion from the AG’s office about the merger agreement between the city and the Communication District, a state-created agency. She wanted to know how it would affect the city’s 311 employees — who had certain job protections under the city’s Civil Service system — when their positions were  eliminated. (The employees were offered other jobs, including at the 911 call center. Communication District employees are not covered by the city’s Civil Service system.)

The responding legal opinion avoids the employment question, saying it was a city personnel matter.

It does, however, go into some detail about the legality of  the merger itself. Because the Communication District was created primarily to administer an emergency number and assist the police department, fire department and city EMS, “it is likely improper for a communications district to administer a number for residents to call regarding local governmental information.”

The opinion notes that state law also provides for the Communication District to collect surcharges from landlines and mobile phones to provide 911 services. Those funds “shall not be diverted by any other entity or any other purpose.”  As a result, the opinion says, “the OPCD may not expend its funds to administer the 311 call center.”

Morris said that the City Attorney’s Office and the Communication District’s legal counsel interpret the opinion to mean that the merger is legal as long as 911 surcharges aren’t involved. The agency’s largest source of revenue is a yearly allocation of about $9.5 million from the city to provide 911 service.

However, according to the agency’s 2019 budget, its operating costs — expenses directly related to providing that service — are $10.3 million. Since all 911 operators are handling 311 calls, all operating expenses are also going into 311. But Morris said the additional $800,000 not provided by the city is coming from the Communication District’s reserves.

“The OPCD General Counsel and I have reviewed this opinion along with the City Attorney. We do not see any issue or conflict between this opinion and the current cooperative endeavors agreement between OPCD and the City of New Orleans,” Morris wrote in a follow-up email to The Lens. “The consolidation of 3-1-1 services with OPCD has provided wonderful results for our residents and we look forward to the future.”

Cantrell’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

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