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City Council eyes once-a-week trash pickup as budget hearings continue

22nd November 2013   ·   0 Comments

By Charles Maldonado
The Lens

The New Orleans City Council’s ongoing budget hearings reached marathon proportions Wednesday with review of spending plans proposed for seven departments or sub-departmental offices, including the council itself. The hearing, which began at 10 a.m., adjourned shortly after 7 p.m.

DEPARTMENT OF SANITATION

While generally approving of the budget for sanitation, some council members said they believed the city could get a better deal with its collection contractors by going to once-a-week trash pickup instead of the current twice-a-week schedule.

The biggest part of the department’s allocation — $31.7 million — goes to trash pickup service contracts with the city’s three collection vendors: Metro Disposal, Richard’s Disposal, and Progressive Waste Solutions, formerly SDT. Over the summer, Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s administration renegotiated the contracts with Metro and Richard’s through 2016, keeping monthly per household costs — $15.99 for Metro and $17.99 for Richard’s — static for the remainder of the term. However, the city gave ground on the household counts, which the city has disputed, agreeing to a slight increase for Metro.

“In 2011, we disputed the house count. We were in negotiation, potential litigation with the vendors,” Chief Administrative Officer Andy Kopplin said.

Kopplin told council members that an analysis by the city and the Office of Inspector General found that rebidding the agreements would have cost as much as $7 million more. But Councilwoman Stacy Head said the analysis was based on faulty assumptions, namely that the city needs its garbage picked up two times per week.

“I think we should ask for less in those contracts, so we could pay less, and use that money” for more essential services, Head said. She noted that other cities, including Dallas, have recently switched from twice-weekly to weekly pickup.

Councilwoman Susan Guidry agreed.

“Change is difficult for people, but we have to help them to get there,” she said. “I’ve heard this in other places that have gone to one-day pickup, it changes the way people deal with waste.”

The city has not renegotiated its third collection contract, with Progressive, and only plans to renew it for one year, noting complaints in its service areas, the Central Business District and the French Quarter. The city pays the company $3.8 million annually for 4,000 households, or about $950 per household, compared with $191 for each of Metro’s 62,000 households and $215 for each of Richard’s 69,000.

In an unexpected revelation, Sanitation Director Cynthia Sylvain-Lear told council members that Progressive recently changed the formula of the famous “lemony fresh” scent it sprays daily in the French Quarter, lending what Councilwoman Cynthia Hedge-Morrell characterized as a less “Disney-like” feel to the area.

“It was working. We got compliments from all over the world,” Hedge-Morrell said of the former scent.

The city pays for sanitation with a monthly service charge — $24 for residences and $48 for businesses — collected by the Sewerage & Water Board of New Orleans. The fee has doubled since Landrieu took office, and the administration has proposed a controversial ordinance that would allow the board to shut off water services for customers who do not pay their garbage bills.

Kopplin acknowledged the proposal is a “difficult step,” but added, “When someone’s not paying what they’re supposed to pay, then we all have to pay more.”

RECREATION DEVELOPMENT COMMISSION

Landrieu’s proposal gives the New Orleans Recreation Development Commission an additional $900,000 from the city’s general fund to maintain and coordinate programming at the city’s 130-plus parks and recreation centers.

Including more than $1 million in federal grants, the department’s total budget comes to nearly $10.5 million. Director Vic Richard pointed out that the city opened three new recreation centers and a major park in 2013, with more planned to open next year. His presentation included a fiscal analysis by the Boston Consulting Group, which showed that if city funding remains static, the department will face multimillion-dollar budget shortfalls beginning in 2015.

“We apparently spend only half as much per capita as equivalent cities do on recreation, is that correct?” Councilman James Gray asked. Richard said that was true.
“We need to say that out loud and we need to do better,” Gray said.

ORLEANS PUBLIC DEFENDERS OFFICE

The Landrieu administration’s general fund allocation for indigent defense appears to be an increase, but as Chief Public Defender Derwyn Bunton explained, the “core” budget for the office is actually decreasing, to $706,000 from $831,000 last year. The remaining $232,000 is earmarked to cover the office’s significantly increased costs for racketeering defendants. Racketeering indictments, once little used by the district attorney’s office, have ramped up under Landrieu’s NOLA For Life anti-gang measures.

The overall budget for the office, which includes money from the state and court fees, is slated to be about $6.5 million in 2014. Bunton said that will allow it to keep only about 49 full-time lawyers on the payroll, defending more than 20,000 cases per year.

“Best practices calls for approximately 88 full-time attorneys,” Bunton said. Noting that his office is up against a $135 million police department budget and the $14 million that goes to the district attorney’s office, he warned that the city is exposed to potential litigation if defenders are forced to drop clients or delay trials.

OFFICE OF PERFORMANCE AND ACCOUNTABILITY

The Office of Performance and Accountability is responsible for the city’s reports on effectiveness and efficiency, including its quarterly ResultsNOLA reports, which rate each department’s progress toward meeting benchmarks. The office’s relatively small budget remains static in 2014.

During Director Oliver Wise’s brief presentation, Hedge-Morrell questioned the wisdom of applying the office’s data-driven standards to some city agencies, such as Juvenile Court, where results are more difficult to calculate and efficiency is hampered by poverty, difficult family circumstances and lack of resources. Landrieu, who backed a failed bill in the Legislature this year to reduce the number of Juvenile Court judges, included severe cuts to its budget in his proposal for 2014.

Wise said the office used national standards to evaluate the court. Hedge-Morrell said he should evaluate which “pool of cities” those standards are being drawn from. She noted that New Orleans has not even completed construction on its new Juvenile Justice Center, and is still using the temporary Youth Study Center opened after Hurricane Katrina.

“It seems to me that we’re trying to fit a square peg in a round hole … Couldn’t you on certain issues just say, ‘It’s very difficult to measure this,’ rather than trying to fit them in that round hole?’” Hedge-Morrell said. “You’re dealing with children. You’re dealing with families. You’re dealing with a system that really is broken on the juvenile level.”

POLICE DEPARTMENT CONSENT DECREE

The sweeping, $55 million, five-year consent decree was approved in January, but litigation between the city and the U.S. Department of Justice, along with a dispute over its monitor, delayed full implementation by months. Due in part to that late start, the city is expected to spend only $3.9 million of its $5.9 million 2013 general fund allocation on the consent decree.

In addition, more than half of next year’s budget will come from FEMA, through the city’s capital budget, Kopplin told council members. The money was realized through unspent federal reimbursements to replace jail buildings wrecked by Hurricane Katrina.

Despite the late start, the police department apparently has made some progress toward compliance with the agreement, including rewriting and implementing the department’s policy manual, including protocols for appropriate use of force, interrogation, disciplinary investigation and bias-free policing.

Those policies, completed in June, have not, however, been posted online for public view, even though the consent decree requires that within 30 days of implementation.

Daniel Cazenave, who serves as the police department’s liaison to the Department of Justice, told The Lens that although the policies have been implemented by the department, they were not submitted to the monitoring group — Sheppard Mullin — until after its contract began in August. The monitor identified 42 policies that require a “deeper dive” review, which has not been completed. Cazenave said the federal court overseeing the consent decree granted extensions on the deadlines.

OFFICE OF POLICE SECONDARY EMPLOYMENT

The newly created office designed to overhaul off-duty police details has gotten off to a slow start. It faces lawsuits from the city’s police associations; it may have cost officers their business with the city’s two downtown sports stadiums, and, according to its director, John Salomone, only 60 officers of about 1,200 have signed up so far. This is problematic because the office’s entire 2014 budget is supposed to come from an administrative fees on hourly detail wages.

“I don’t see it paying for itself in 2014, so how is it not taking general fund dollars?” Councilwoman Susan Guidry asked.

Kopplin replied that his office directly controls some $40 million of the general fund. Moving around a few hundred thousand dollars to cover a deficit in the detail program, he said, shouldn’t be a problem.

CITY COUNCIL

The City Council retains its full budget under Landrieu’s proposal. Discussion of the council’s budget began a few minutes before 7 p.m. and was appropriately brief.

This story was originally published by The Lens, an independent, nonprofit newsroom serving New Orleans. The Louisiana Weekly enjoys a partnership with The Lens. This article published in the November 18, 2013 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.

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