Landrieu's tax legislation hits roadblocks at capitol _lowres

Advocate staff photo by JOHN McCUSKER -- Mayor Mitch Landrieu and his wife Cheryl takes the stage at the Saenger Theatre before taking the oath of office for his second term Monday, May 5, 2014.

In what’s become a budget season tradition, Orleans Parish Clerk of Criminal District Court Arthur Morrell sat before the City Council on Friday and demanded more money for his office than Mayor Mitch Landrieu is willing to give it.

Among Morrell’s oft-heard talking points: He alone is fiscal czar of his office; Landrieu is usurping Morrell’s power, in violation of state law; and the council should fully fund his request for $4.7 million and 90.5 office positions, a staffing level Morrell said makes for the best record-keeping.

In the 2016 budget he submitted to the council, Landrieu said the job can be done with $3.7 million and 75.5 positions.

The battle has raged annually in the council chamber since Landrieu snipped money from Morrell’s $3.7 million allocation in 2012.

One issue is whether the mayor can legally do that. Citing state laws that mandate funding for his office, Morrell slapped Landrieu with a lawsuit that year. It was dismissed; Morrell appealed.

A new law, which requires the Legislature to approve cuts to Morrell’s staff, changed things.

A Civil District Court judge ruled this summer that Landrieu must fund Morrell’s request for 90.5 positions. The city filed an appeal, which is moving forward, City Attorney Sharonda Williams said.

Meanwhile, Landrieu offered to have the city’s “service and innovation team” examine Morrell’s finances and operations to see what is needed and what is not and how he might save money. Morrell, who receives city money but whose office is authorized by the state, refused. Some council members say he shouldn’t have.

Complicating things are the dozens of boxes of court evidence that sit in Morrell’s cramped office basement, a recipe for disaster should another large flood strike.

In addition, his office’s job might get tougher next year, should the court expand its use of an online database that allows for full-text searches of thousands of court documents that must be manually scanned.

When Morrell spoke Friday of the need for more space and personnel, Councilwoman Susan Guidry and Chief Administrative Officer Andy Kopplin again brought up the innovation team.

Several council members — Guidry included — seemed sick of the endless back and forth.

“Every year we get to this point,” Councilwoman LaToya Cantrell said. “The administration says that they are going to offer services and a partnership, and every year it doesn’t happen.”

However, she seemed sympathetic to Morrell’s position, saying, “It is hard for us to hold you accountable if you are not funded adequately.”

Councilman James Gray had a different take. He said the city should fund the clerk according to his need, not some set number of positions Morrell wants to fill. If that need involves more space or manpower for a specific purpose, the city can work on that, he said.

But if Morrell continues to play hardball and demand funding per his view of the law, “we are not going to get any closer on that,” Gray said.

There have been some concessions in the long-running battle. Earlier this year, when Morrell wanted more staff for his evidence and bond office, the city allowed it, after years of not processing his hiring and promotion requests. In 2012, after Morrell claimed that the city’s belt-tightening left him without basic supplies, Landrieu partially reduced a budget cut to allow him to buy copy paper.

Today, the city maintains that it does not have to pay for 90.5 employees every year, only for certain positions, said Williams, the city attorney. She did not specify what those positions are.

Morrell disagreed. He said his budget should be approved as is. If the council or Landrieu doesn’t like his proposal, they can “go to the Legislature,” he said.

As for why he won’t let the city look at his books? “I don’t trust them,” he said. “I don’t like them. And it’s personal. Period.”

There was no resolution Friday, though Councilwoman Nadine Ramsey pledged to work toward one for both sides.

Follow Jessica Williams on Twitter, @jwilliamsNOLA.