The City Council has rejected Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s attempt to take money being collected for building maintenance at Municipal Court and use it to pay for salaries at the court.
In a rare defeat for the mayor, the council voted 4-3 on Thursday against an ordinance that would have moved about $600,000 from the court’s building maintenance fund into its Judicial Expense Fund.
The money comes from a $5 court cost assessed to people convicted of violating municipal laws. Court costs are fees assessed on top of any fines violators must pay; the resulting revenue is split among a number of agencies for various purposes.
Municipal Court has been collecting the maintenance fee since the council passed an ordinance allowing for the charge in 2000. That law says the money will be dedicated to a fund to help pay for upkeep of the Municipal and Traffic Court building.
The ordinance before the council Thursday, requested by Landrieu’s administration, would have kept the fee in place but redirected the money now in the fund as well as future collections to the Judicial Expense Fund.
The Municipal Court judges objected to the proposal, saying it was an attempt to make up for a shortage in the city’s general fund with money that had been promised elsewhere — an idea they said is unconstitutional.
Chief Administrative Officer Andy Kopplin urged the council to pass the measure so that the city’s 2014 budget would be balanced.
He said there was no need for the court to maintain the building fund any longer because the city intends to provide money to renovate the South Broad Street courthouse as part of its capital budget.
Kopplin said the judges have been aware of the plan to shift the money for more than a year. He said the city created its 2014 budget for Municipal Court with the expectation that it would use the building fund to pay for the court’s expenses.
“This is long overdue in terms of moving forward. If this ordinance is not adopted, the Municipal Court will be about $600,000 in the hole in terms of an IOU to the city,” Kopplin said. “They need these funds in order to reimburse us for the payroll that we have been floating for the Municipal Court.”
The judges, however, questioned whether it would be appropriate to use money specifically collected for one purpose on something else.
City Attorney Sharonda Williams said she believed the proposed transfer “likely” was appropriate because there was a “reasonable relationship” between the two uses.
“In this case we are not seeking the use of the fee to be put into the general fund, but basically to remain consistent with the purpose that it was collected for in the beginning, and that is for court operations and the administration of justice of the court,” Williams said.
But Municipal Judge Desiree Charbonnet said she could not support the proposal without stronger assurances that judges would not run afoul of the Louisiana Judiciary Commission’s code of conduct, which governs judges’ actions. She said the court made a covenant with the public that it would use the money collected from the fee for building maintenance.
“If it’s (only) likely it may be OK, that’s a problem for us,” Charbonnet said. “For us to take that money, put it in our Judicial Expense Fund and then pay payroll with it seems improper and illegal to us, and we are not going to support something that would put us in the position to do something illegal.”
Councilman Jason Williams said approving the plan would leave the council on shaky legal ground.
“This is a legal opinion. It may be the right one. It may be the wrong one. You may hear about this down the road,” said Williams, who is a lawyer. “I think the council needs to be very, very cautious about stepping in this direction.”
In the end, Williams and fellow council members Jared Brossett, James Gray and Nadine Ramsey voted against the ordinance. Susan Guidry, who introduced the measure on the administration’s behalf, voted for it, along with colleagues Stacy Head and LaToya Cantrell.
Gray, Ramsey, Guidry and Head all are lawyers.
It is unclear whether the administration will seek to revive the measure. Thursday’s council meeting was the last of the 2014 fiscal year.