It is begging season at City Hall, the time of year when one agency head after another appears before the City Council to ask for more money — sometimes millions of dollars more — than the mayor proposes to give them in next year’s budget.
But Arthur Morrell, the clerk of Criminal District Court, is clearly not getting into the spirit of things.
Although he was scheduled to present his office’s 2015 spending plan to the council on Thursday, Morrell left City Hall without presenting anything. Instead, he and council President Stacy Head ended up in a private debate over what Morrell’s office is required to explain to council members.
The two went back and forth for about a half hour in the council chamber but away from the dais — delaying the start of the fourth day of budget hearings — as other council members, city officials and members of the public waited and eavesdropped.
Morrell, who has been winning a legal battle against the city over his claim that state law requires City Hall to fully fund his staff at the level he deems necessary, maintained that he needed to present only the budget he crafted — not Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s version of it — to the council because his office’s funding is not subject to the whims of the Mayor’s Office or the council.
Head argued that Morrell’s office, like any other office that receives city money, is required to make a presentation to the council that includes an explanation of how it will spend the money allocated under the mayor’s proposed budget and then, if necessary, a request for any additional money.
The clerk was scheduled to present first on Thursday. Before the meeting started, however, Head approached Morrell to ask why his office had not presented its budget to the council using a template the council requires all agencies to fill out. The template allows agencies to input their revenue and expenses based on the amount allocated in the mayor’s budget. There also is room to identify things that will go unfunded under that budget and to make a case for more money.
But Morrell instead submitted his budget as originally proposed, saying that the mayor’s budget proposal for his office was inaccurate. Filling out the council’s budget form, he said, would be an admission that funding for his office is up to the discretion of the mayor and council.
“The mayor doesn’t put together a budget for me,” Morrell said after leaving the council chamber. “I am responsible under state law for putting together a budget for my office and then giving it to the mayor and the City Council for them to pay that budget.”
If the mayor or council has a problem with that, they should take it up with the Legislature, he said.
“The Legislature is the only agency that can reduce my budget,” he said. “I have to answer to the Legislature. All of my people are state employees. I’m a state official.”
Head said she disagreed with Morrell’s interpretation of state law but didn’t see the need for him to make a presentation to the council if he didn’t believe the council has any legal discretion over his budget.
“If that is his position, why would we sit here and listen to it?” she said. “It would be a waste of all our energies.”
The latest dustup is part of an ongoing battle between the city and Morrell. He filed suit against the city in 2012, accusing Chief Administrative Officer Andy Kopplin of illegally holding back funds from his office as the city tried to reduce a looming deficit.
According to the city, Morrell has repeatedly overspent his budget, forcing the city to rein in the office.
“The city supports council President Stacy Head’s position that the clerk of Criminal District Court should provide responses to the City Council’s request for financial information,” Kopplin said in a statement. “Clerk Morrell is seeking an appropriation from the city. He needs to provide information as requested and justify his request as every other agency receiving funds must do.”
For all of the drama, the amount of money in dispute is relatively small. He is seeking $4.2 million to pay for 91 positions, Morrell said. The mayor’s budget proposes to give him $3.7 million.
Morrell said his budget is based on a mathematical calculation of the number of positions in his office and their salaries.
“Mathematically, you just add it up,” he said.