Last night on WWL-TV, Gambit political editor Clancy DuBos' weekly commentary was on the proposed hike in sewerage and water rates that's coming before the New Orleans City Council this week.
New Orleans City Council today easily passed Mayor Mitch Landrieu's $492 million budget, making a few minor adjustments.
The final budget makes reductions in the council's budget by about $100,000, to $9.8 million from $9.9 million. The Orleans Parish Sheriff's Office's budget was reduced by $300,000 to $22.1 million, with that money taken out of the sheriff's electronic monitoring program.
Council members voted to add about $1.1 million to the New Orleans Police Department's budget, bringing its total general fund allocation to $126.7 million. The additional funding will be used to pay for two new recruit classes next year. Finally, the approved budget restores grant funding for the LSU AgCenter and increases a grant to the New Orleans Council on Aging by $100,000.
(More after the jump)
U.S. District Court Judge Lance Africk today sentenced former New Orleans City Councilman Jon Johnson to six months in federal prison for conspiracy to commit theft of federal funds and submitting false documents to a federal department. Johnson pleaded guilty and resigned from his District E City Council seat in July.
Johnson faced a maximum five year penalty for routing nearly $80,000 in FEMA funds through two charities and into a campaign fund for his failed 2007 bid for the State Senate. Johnson was not a public servant at the time of his crimes. He also admitted to submitting false invoices to the Small Business Administration justifying a low interest loan for work done on his home to repair flood damage.
Pleading for leniency at today's hearing, Johnson asked Africk to take his family situation into account. Johnson, whose wife died in 2011, is the sole caretaker of his 8-year-old daughter.
"I stand before you this afternoon simply saying that I made a terrible mistake that I regret," he said. "I have an 8-year-old daughter that I've been caring for for the past year-and-a-half ... Please be lenient and please consider my personal circumstances with my daughter."
(More after the jump)
James Gray, candidate for New Orleans City Council District E in the Dec. 8 runoff election, raised $49,365 in campaign contributions from mid-October to mid-November, compared to $39,700 in contributions to his opponent State Rep. Austin Badon. Badon, however, ended the period with more cash on hand, nearly $11,000 to just under $4,000 for Gray, according to campaign finance reports filed yesterday with the Louisiana Ethics Administration.
Gray's campaign spent about $55,000 between Oct. 18 and Nov. 18, the period covered by the 10th day prior to general election report. Badon's campaign spent $44,000 in the same period.
Supplemental reports show that Gray collected $3,500 and Badon collected $7,000 in contributions between Nov. 18 and today.
Notable Gray contributions in the most recent reports: $3,500 from the Committee to Elect Cheryl Gray (Gray's daughter and former state senator who resigned in 2009); $2,500 from former Congressman Claude "Buddy" Leach; $1,500 from the Service Employees International Union national office; and $1,000 from HRI Properties.
Notable Badon contributions in the most recent reports: $2,500 from Richard's Disposal; $2,000 from developer/philanthropist Roger Ogden; $1,000 from former Board of Secondary and Elementary Education member and charter school advocate Leslie Jacobs; and $250 from former Congressman Anh "Joseph" Cao.
New Orleans City Council District B candidate LaToya Cantrell received an endorsement from council president Stacy Head, who formerly represented the district. Head was joined by council members Kristin Gisleson Palmer and Cynthia Hedge-Morrell, as well as Mark Vicknair from the Alliance for Good Government, Sen. Ed Murray, D-New Orleans, and former District B candidate Eric Strachan at Midway Pizza on Freret Street this morning.
"It can be difficult to pass the torch to someone new," Head said. "But I have absolute confidence Latoya Cantrell is the right woman for this job." Head said she believes Cantrell can "recreate the success" of Freret and Oretha Castle Haley Boulevard projects with "thoughtful development and hard work," while fighting blight and spurring economic development.
I was unable to attend yesterday's hearings, but I did catch the news coverage. I also watched a bit on television, and I gather there was a medium-sized scene involving the Vera Pretrial Services program at Orleans Parish Prison. I did attend today, and it came up again during the New Orleans Police Department budget.
On both days, audience members were subjected to frequent comparisons between Vera's Pretrial Services program and the "disastrous" Pretrial Services Division in Philadelphia.
Similar names, but these are two quite different things.
In 2009, the Philadelphia Inquirer published an investigative series on the local criminal justice system, including its Pretrial Service Division, implemented in 1969 as a reform to the city's bail system. Among the Inquirer's findings: local courts had 47,000 fugitives and more than $1 billion in bail debt on their hands.
During yesterday's and today's hearings, the Inquirer article came up repeatedly — from council members today and public speakers, several from the bail industry, yesterday — a cautionary tale used to discourage the continued funding of the Vera program. But here's the problem: The comparison doesn't really hold up. If one were to actually read the article, he or she would see as much. For one, Pretrial Service in Philadelphia was a replacement of the commercial bail industry. The city effectively banned bail bondsmen, funding and administering bail itself, as well removing an entire industry that serves as a resource in minimizing failures-to-appear and finding bail jumpers.
None of that is happening here. Vera Pretrial Services, which is funded at $184,000 in Mayor Mitch Landrieu's latest budget proposal, is not replacing commercial bail.
None of this is to say that the merits (or lack thereof) of the program aren't worth discussing. But let's talk about it on its merits rather than panic or exaggerate. If Vera's risk assessment model is faulty, that's a problem. If defendants are being released based on Vera assessments and failing to show up to court, that's a problem, likewise if judges come to trust the risk assessments above their own judgement. And maybe this shouldn't be a contract. Maybe it should be run directly by the city, using city employees.
And the bail industry should have a say here. While Vera New Orleans is not, to my knowledge, explicitly committed to "eliminating the commercial bail industry," as one speaker charged last night, a 2007 Vera report on the New Orleans criminal justice system did refer, in its "best practices" section, to some models elsewhere (not Philadelphia) that replaced commercial bail with something else.
However, Vera Pretrial Services is not the same thing as the Philadelphia Pretrial Services Division.
(More after the jump)
Sheriff Marlin Gusman today presented a budget that he says will end the hated per-diem budget system and has thus provided us all a very easily digestible news lead. If not for the fact that it appears there's no way the city is going to accept Gusman's budget request.
This is why:
Last year, Gusman asked for $34 million, based on a higher per diem rate. He did not get that. He got $22.9 million based on the current city rate of $22.39 per inmate per inmate per day.
This year, he came to City Council with a "fixed budget" offer, monthly allocations from the city general fund that are not directly connected to a prisoner count. No more "perverse incentive." However, Gusman says he needs $37 million to do it, taking into account rising costs for medical care and pharmaceuticals as well new deputies he hopes to hire and pay raises for the deputies he has.
Day Three's agenda: libraries, parks, trash, drugs, bugs, buses, sex, drugs, rock 'n' roll.
First up this afternoon was city librarian Charles Brown, the new director of the New Orleans Public Library who has helmed a stellar year for the city's library system: several branches reopened, and visitors are up more than 30 percent than last year (and 2012 isn't over yet). It kicked off literacy and school readiness programs, including a teen outreach summer reading program with more than 650 teens.
In 2013, it aims for more youth outreach, more technology use (computers are in demand), and more programs for new American citizens or soon-to-be-citizens.
The city's general fund once again does not set aside funds for NOPL, so it'll have to rely on its millage (from which it receives $8 million annually) and its reserve. This year, the reserve has $8 million — it's expected to dwindle to $4.5 million in 2013, and $604.209 by 2014, according to Brown.
Its Main Library also needs help: the near-capacity city archives are not climate controlled and have no advanced security and are "constantly in danger of being literally destroyed," Brown said. The library itself has had "no overall renovation" since its opening in 1958. The Loyola Avenue renovations could make the Main Library a star, Brown said, but instead it's "an island of blight."
Day 1 was slow, but that was unavoidable. We began with grants, a long parade of underfunded nonprofits, each trying to secure a slightly larger tiny piece of a tiny piece of a shrinking pie. Then we had Safety and Permits. City Council cares about Safety and Permits, a lot, because code violations and permitting issues encompass a very large number of the complaints they hear from their constituents. This is understandable and fine, but it also means they tend to get caught up in minutiae.
Today, on the other hand has been — snappy is an inappropriate word for anything having to do with municipal government so I'll use one of municipal government's own words — streamlined.
(Summary follows after the jump)
The Afternoon Session of the first day of New Orleans' Epic Poem 2013 is still going on, but today's important one was the Department of Safety and Permits, which is looking at a 7 percent cut, or about $300,000, in 2013.
S&P director Pura Bascos and Deputy Mayor Michelle Thomas presented the S&P budget. We heard about progress on the elusive One Stop Shop, which is coming along. And S&P is in the midst of implementing a new permitting software system, called LAMA, a word city officials kept having to repeat all afternoon.
But some Councilmembers, particularly Cynthia Hedge-Morrell, were not satisfied.
"What I'm hearing today is you bought some software," she said, even as pervasive complaints about city code enforcement persist. Hedge-Morrell asked if the department needed more staff or funding (S&P, budget director Cary Grant said, generates about $10 million per year in revenue, double the amount it spends). The department is budgeted for 77 full-time positions, though it actually has 82. This discrepancy led to the following comment from Councilwoman Kristin Palmer:
"But for 2012 it says 77."
Palmer might note that in the 2012 budget that was adopted in late 2011, it says 93.48 full-time employees. No explanation was provided about those disappeared 16.48 people at today's hearing, primarily because no Councilmember asked.
But the really important thing today was Plum Street Snoballs, a heretofore unknown city agency that nevertheless warranted nearly 30 minutes of discussion after a public speaker complained about it in the middle of today's budget hearings.
Tomorrow: Law Department, Civil Service, Juvenile Court
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