The New Orleans City Council voted Thursday to increase the budgets of several city departments, including Sanitation, Health and Public Works, and to remove $1.6 million from the Fire Department’s pension fund as the council approved a $536.8 million general fund operating budget for 2015.
The panel approved the budget unanimously, changing the final total very little from the $536.9 million figure proposed by Mayor Mitch Landrieu in October.
The city’s total operating budget, which includes federal and state grants that the city doesn’t directly control, grew from the $956.9 million proposed by the mayor to $965.9 million, thanks to additional grants.
In passing the budget, the City Council agreed to Landrieu’s proposed 5 percent pay increase for Police Department officers. That works out to an average increase of $2,200 per officer and would cost a total of $4.2 million.
Police unions and the Civil Service Commission have argued that 5 percent would not be enough to attract new officers and retain those already on the job. The commission called for officers’ salaries to rise by 10 percent in 2015 and by a further 5 percent in both 2016 and 2017.
Several council members said they agreed that the 5 percent raise is not a sufficient long-term solution for the department but that other obligations, including the federally mandated consent decree for reforming many aspects of the NOPD’s operations, made a larger raise impossible this year.
“Five percent is not enough,” Councilman Jason Williams said. “We know it’s not enough. We just didn’t have those resources right now.”
There was very little discussion of the budget measures, with the council members passing most of their changes unanimously.
The one exception came as the panel voted to decrease the Fire Department pension budget by $1.6 million.
Chief Administrative Officer Andy Kopplin said the money was excess and that the fund would still have enough money to make all of its payments.
But firefighters union President Nick Felton said the department needs the money for administrative costs associated with getting money to retired firefighters or their families.
That vote split 6-1, with Councilwoman Nadine Ramsey voting against removing the money.
The council also reduced the Juvenile Court budget by $175,000 and sent that amount instead to the Orleans Parish Public Defenders Office for “conflict attorneys.”
The council deferred voting on an amendment that would have steered additional money to the Office of the Independent Police Monitor to fund its Community Police Mediation Program and hire two employees. Williams said Inspector General Ed Quatrevaux, whose office sets the budget for the police monitor, has agreed to set aside an additional $143,000 for the mediation program and other needs in that office.
The agreement will be formalized in an amendment that will go before the council at its Dec. 4 meeting, Williams said.
Appearing before the council earlier this month, Police Monitor Susan Hutson appealed for $388,000 more than the $500,000 Quatrevaux had set aside for her office in 2015. She said her office needed money for the mediation program and to hire a staff auditor and a contract data analyst.
The Independent Police Monitor’s Office falls within the inspector general’s budget, and the council by law can’t tell him how to spend the money he receives. His annual appropriation is a fixed percentage of the city’s total general fund budget.
Hutson and Quatrevaux have been in an ongoing feud over funding. The council will likely try to figure out a way next year to have more control over the funding level for the police monitor, members said.
“This year, we took steps to make sure that the independent police monitor is truly independent,” Williams said. “Without financial independence, nobody can truly be independent.”
Other offices and departments receiving budget increases include the Mosquito Control Board, an additional $101,500 to fund subterranean termite inspections and treatment at Jackson Barracks; the Department of Sanitation, a $220,000 budget boost for bridge, overpass and highway maintenance; the Health Department, $59,000 more to add a public health position; and the Department of Property Management, $408,000 more for cemetery and generator maintenance and a cleaning contract.
The council gave the Department of Public Works $200,000 more for bridge and overpass maintenance. The Department of Parkways also received an additional $170,000, some of it to fund the mowing of the Lafitte Greenway.
The council added $70,000 to the New Orleans Public Library system’s operating budget to hire a grant writer and another $200,000 to fund its bookmobile program.
The cash-strapped library’s executive director, Charles Brown, told the council during budget hearings that the system will exhaust its reserves by the middle of 2016, an event that could lead to library closures unless adequate funding is established.
The library has been raiding its reserves to cover the gap between its operating needs and the revenue it generates from a dedicated property tax. The city has allocated no money to the library from the general fund in recent years.
The library’s tax millage hasn’t increased in nearly 30 years and no longer brings in enough money to run the system.
“As we know, there are additional resources that are needed to fully advance the libraries throughout the city,” Councilwoman LaToya Cantrell said. “At this point, this is a step in the right direction.”
Cantrell also is expected to ask voters next year to support a millage increase that would direct more money to the library system.