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The Counsel Man 

Despite a personal appeal from Mayor Ray Nagin, the New Orleans City Council's Budget Committee on June 27 recommended approval of special hiring rates for only 10 of the new mayor's top 25 management positions. Four of the 25 jobs requested by Nagin are new positions that require approval of the Civil Service Commission, which next meets on July 15, so procedural considerations account for some of the delay. But politics and budget concerns also drove the committee's decision to defer action on the remaining 11 jobs. In one case, the committee balked at a special job -- with a very special compensation package -- for former City Councilman Jim Singleton. In that case, the council should reject the mayor's request out of hand.

Nagin has consistently stated that he needs to raise management salaries to attract the kind of "all-star" team that will find creative ways to re-organize city government into a more business-friendly operation. Then he can raise the pay of the city work force.

"If we can't get past the hiring of a proper management team to go in and find the solutions that we need, we are not going to [be able to] take care of all the city workers," Nagin told the budget committee. The mayor adds that his management pay plan -- which increases salaries by a net total of $130,000 -- will be funded primarily by savings already realized by his administration.

Amid roiling rumors of an operating budget deficit as high as $50 million, the City Council is understandably reluctant to approve salaries as high as six figures for management -- particularly if mass layoffs might be just around the corner. Moreover, city employees have not had a pay raise of more than 5 percent since August 1982. More than a third of the 8,000-member municipal work force receive poverty-level wages. City Council members as well as civil service commissioners have told the administration they want more details before blessing the mayor's pay plan.

Nagin's proposal to create a new, six-figure job for Singleton is a major sticking point. Singleton served for 24 years on the City Council and remains a leader of the BOLD political organization in Central City. He finished fourth in the February mayoral primary and then became the first major "also-ran" to endorse Nagin in the March run-off. After the election, Singleton became a fixture in Nagin's transition team. Singleton is an acknowledged expert on the city's budget, but he brings considerable baggage to the table. Some of his former council colleagues openly resent Singleton for his alleged heavy-handed style while serving as council president. Whether those feelings are justified or not, the rancor between Singleton and a majority of the present council is palpable.

Despite repeated warnings not to wade into such troubled waters, Nagin last month asked the City Council to create a one-year position for Singleton as executive assistant to the mayor for government organization and operations. The position would pay $110,482 yearly -- roughly what Singleton would have earned had he been elected mayor. The higher salary reportedly would boost Singleton's pension from his $42,000-a-year council salary. Since early May, Singleton has been carried on the city payroll as an unpaid employee; he keeps his health insurance and some other benefits.

Singleton has downplayed the significance of his proposed salary; he says he is honoring a campaign commitment to help the new mayor. "I can probably make more by going to the private sector, but it's something I've made a commitment to do," Singleton told The Times-Picayune. A Nagin spokesman has said the mayor wants the benefit of Singleton's "institutional knowledge of City Hall and city government." But Nagin's plan for Singleton misses several points:

· If New Orleans voters wanted Jim Singleton to re-organize city government, they would have elected him -- not Ray Nagin -- as mayor.

· The proposed job looks like a reward for Singleton's political support, which is antithetical to everything Nagin campaigned on.

· Singleton's expertise on the budget can be overstated. Simply put, why pay someone $110,000 a year to fix a problem that was created on his watch -- when he was making only $42,000 a year?

If Nagin wants Singleton's counsel, he should not have to pay a mayor's salary to get it. A phone call should suffice. Nagin should withdraw the proposed pay plan for Singleton, and the retired councilman should offer the new mayor his very best advice -- for free -- while making the piles of money he says he can make in the private sector. If Nagin refuses to withdraw the request, the council should deny it.

The City Charter prohibits deficit spending and requires Nagin to submit a balanced 2003 operating budget by Dec. 1. We want the mayor to get his team in place, but the budget should be everyone's top priority right now. To that end, the mayor and the council need to give citizens a clear picture of the city's fiscal situation. Do that first. Do it now.

The clock is ticking.

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