Monday, January 4, 2010

Taking a Blight Out of Crime

Posted By on Mon, Jan 4, 2010 at 10:11 PM

Calling blight “a crime breeder,” the New Orleans City Council’s Recovery Committee met this morning to discuss Mayor Nagin’s recent cut of blight hearings from the city’s 2010 budget, and how to restore them. Council President Arnie Fielkow said the Council hopes to negotiate with the mayor to put the administrative hearings back into the budget, but if that doesn’t happen, the council should pay for the hearings through its own funds.

In order to avoid the appearance of partiality — the city cites and prosecutes property owners for blight — the city attorney’s office has hired outside legal firms to conduct administrative hearings to determine whether or not a property should be declared legally blighted. Through October of last year, the firms had conducted more than 11,000 blight hearings.

“I think it’s an incredible leverage tool for the city,” said attorney Carl Butler of LeBlanc/Butler, one of the three law firms the New Orleans City Attorney’s Office hired in 2009 to conduct the hearings. Butler explained that the hearings allowed the city to encourage property owners to get their properties up to code, and levy fines against offenders.

Council Vice President Jackie Clarkson chaired the committee, and said the blight hearings was the top issue that residents want to see put back into the city budget. Nagin cut out the hearings on Dec. 11, after the council passed a budget in December, reducing funding to a number of city departments, including $1 million from the city attorney’s office. Ceon Quiett, director of the mayor’s office of communication, said there wasn’t enough money left in the law department’s budget for 2010 to pay for a 12-month contract, which Quiett says the city charter requires.

“So that’s why the city attorney’s office had to make the cuts they made,” Quiett said. “They didn’t have the money in their budget for the lifetime of these services.” Quiett says the city spent $215,000 in 2009 for the administrative hearings, and, City Attorney Penya Moses Fields estimated the total cost to continue the hearings would be $250,000 in 2010.

Councilmember Stacy Head, holding up a copy of the law department’s 2010 proposed professional services and consulting contracts, said that only $80,000 was needed to continue the blight hearings, and that this was a miniscule amount compared to the city’s overall general fund budget of $455 million.

“These are the last contracts we should cut,” said the Council District B representative.

Fielkow agreed, and asked what the council could do to restore the contracts. He suggested if budget negotiations with the mayor don’t work out, the council should try to hire back the law firms to conduct the hearings. Fielkow then if the city’s legislative body had the legal right to do this. Clarkson said the council could contractually hire the firms, but it didn’t have the legal right to execute the contract, making sure the firms were paid and work completed.

“Let Ms. Morrell do her charms,” Clarkson said, alluding to the council’s budget chair, Cynthia Hedge-Morrell, and her efforts to work with the mayor to restore the blight reduction funding.

Hedge-Morrell told the committee she has been meeting with the mayor and his representatives in ongoing basis to resolve budget differences.

“But we are not as close as I once thought, so we’re back to the drawing board,” Hedge-Morrel said.

Quiett confirmed the negotiations between the two sides were still taking place, and hoped an ordinance to restore the blight hearings could be introduced to the council at its general meeting on Thursday, January 7th.

“If we are going to have anything restored, or if any budget reductions are going to be restored, it’s going to happen on the 7th, or we will get pushed further into the year,” Quiett said.

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