City of New Orleans Chief Administrative Officer Gilbert Montaño at a May 4, 2020 press conference. (Michael Isaac Stein/The Lens)

The New Orleans Civil Service Commission voted to allow Mayor LaToya Cantrell to go forward with a plan to partially furlough all city employees through the end of the year. Effective Monday, all city employees will be furloughed for one day every two week pay period — six total days through the end of the year, equating to a roughly 10 percent pay cut for the last three months of the year.

The measure passed in a 3-to-1 vote. Commissioner Clifton Moore — the one member who’s nominated by city employees  — was the sole no vote. (Due to technical problems with the videoconference software being used to conduct the meeting, Commissioner John Korn’s vote was unclear to both the public and — The Lens confirmed after the meeting — Civil Service Department staff.)

Cantrell is invoking a section of the Civil Service rules that allows the Mayor to furlough classified city employees if it’s necessary to avoid layoffs. But those rules require the Mayor to make the request to the Civil Service director 30 days before the furlough, and to notify each affected employee of the furloughs 10 days in advance. 

With Thursday’s vote, the furloughs can take effect right away. At a Monday press conference announcing the furloughs, Cantrell argued that they would be furloughing employees for 6 days total whether they begin now or in 30 days. She argued that it is better for employees to have the furloughed days spread out over a longer period, rather than bunched up at the end of the year. 

The furloughs were necessitated by a $41 million revenue shortfall that the administration needs to fill with expenditure cuts, Chief Administrative Officer Gilbert Montaño said on Monday. The city is predicting that it will collect $150 million less in recurring revenues, such as sales taxes, than it expected to at the beginning of the year. At the same time, however, the city received two large, unexpected one-time payments — $60 million from the CARES Act and roughly $50 million from a lawsuit with Harrah’s over back taxes.

That CARES Act funding, however, was far below what the city expected. Montaño said the city submitted $200 million in eligible coronavirus-related expenditures to the state, which administers the federal funding. 

The resulting $41 million revenue shortage appears to be covered already by savings the city has achieved throughout the year from various cost-saving measures, including cutting contracts and keeping vacant positions unfilled. The city estimates those measures will save the city nearly $90 million, according to recent revenue and expenditure reports. 

But Montaño said that the administration was being cautious, since those savings aren’t final and may fall by the end of the year. And he said it was important to go into 2021 with a budget that was based on recurring revenues. The furloughs will yield another $6 million in savings, he said. 

“The last option we ever wanted to hit was of course our personnel,” Montaño said during Thursday’s meeting. The city only made this decision when “it became abundantly clear what we hoped for the CARES Act wouldn’t come to fruition.” 

The commission vote came over overwhelming opposition from city employees who spoke — or whose written comments were read — at the meeting. Employees expressed concerns about public safety, providing adequate service to the public.

“Any such cuts to public safety are dangerous at any time,” said Aaron Mischler, president of the city’s firefighters union.  “Cuts to public safety will assuredly cost lives.” 

Several characterized the furloughs as an unfair and hasty decision that could have been avoided, or mitigated, had the Cantrell administration acted sooner. 

“The mayor and her team have had seven months to prepare,” said Joseph Colón, a city planner. “Why was this not a collaborative effort with workers to find an equitable solution, such as cutting the pay of higher paid workers?” 

Moore, the only commissioner to vote against the furloughs, likewise questioned the timing.

“I don’t see how Mr. Montano articulated how this was unforeseeable,” Moore said. “It seems that any reasonable person observing the effects of the coronavirus on our economy would have come to that conclusion.”

Further cuts may be coming 

The furlough will apply to “classified” civil service employees — roughly 4,000 people, the majority of the city’s workforce — as well as the roughly 600 “unclassified” political appointees working for the city. Cantrell is also applying the furlough to herself, and urged other elected officials to join her.  

The “unclassified” political appointees as well as elected officials will be expected to work during their furlough days..

Some agencies are exempt, including the Sewerage & Water Board, the French Market Corp. and the Municipal Yacht Harbor. The exempt agencies — totalling about 1,800 employees — are largely paid for through non-general fund dollars. Not included in the list of exempt departments read aloud during the meeting was the New Orleans Public Library, even though the library is funded entirely through a dedicated property tax, not the general fund.

In an email following the meeting, Cantrell spokesperson LaTonya Norton initially told The Lens that the library would be required to furlough its staff. However, she quickly followed up with a correction. The library, Norton said, is exempt from the furloughs.

According to a letter from Cantrell to the Civil Service Commission this week, these furloughs are only the beginning of personnel cuts that the city will have to impose as it begins to chart out a budget for 2021.

“Unfortunately, I anticipate that I may need to make additional requests of the Commission in the coming months,” Cantrell’s letter said. “As we approach the 2021 budget cycle, the City is facing revenue shortfalls as severe as we experienced in 2020, but without the expectation of the one-time funds or federal funding for 2021. We will only be able to reduce personnel expenditures enough to fill this funding gap through some combination of furloughs, pay reductions, and/or layoffs. When we introduce the 2021 budget at the end of this month, that budget will necessarily include personnel spending cuts.”

At Thursday’s meeting, Montaño said the city is preparing for a 20 percent budget reduction next year.

“We will get to the point where we will have to make more difficult decisions,” he said.

City Personnel Director Lisa Hudson said that layoffs typically require even more notice than furloughs: 45 days. Should layoffs come to pass, she urged the Cantrell administration to follow the normal procedure, rather than request another waiver.

“I hope we’re not as cavalier about waiving the notice requirements for potential layoffs in the future,” she said. 

This story was updated after publication with information from Mayor LaToya Cantrell’s office about the New Orleans Public Library.