Criminal District Court judges asked the City Council on Wednesday to increase Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s proposed 2015 allocation to the court by $262,000 to help it stave off an expected deficit in the coming year. The judges also asked council members to approve a request they will make next month for an additional $530,000 to cover a shortfall in the current year’s budget.
Landrieu has proposed giving the court about $2 million next year, $500,000 more than it is getting in 2014. The city’s general fund pays for a portion of the court’s personnel costs, as well as for the jury commission and the Tulane Tower Learning Center, which provides case management, mentoring and educational services to at-risk youth.
The city’s allocation is only a portion of the court’s total annual budget of about $8 million. The court generates revenue of its own from various fees and fines, and some of its operations are covered by the state Supreme Court.
The city has earmarked its $500,000 increase for personnel costs, which include salaries, benefits and supplies, city Budget Director Cary Grant said. As a result, under the proposed budget, the court will have about $1.25 million, up from $749,000 in 2014, to spend on personnel costs.
The court, however, had requested more than $1.5 million for that purpose and will therefore face a nearly $262,000 deficit next year, the court’s in-house accountant, Tommie Vassel, told the council.
“We could use more, but we’re certainly appreciative of any increase in these recessionary times,” Judge Benedict Willard said.
Besides the extra $262,000 they are seeking for 2015, the Criminal District Court judges say they also need $530,000 to complete this year.
Vassel, who joined the court earlier this year, said the court has had deficits for the past three or four years but has used its reserves to cover costs while the city has experienced a budget crunch. The reserve fund has now been exhausted, he said.
The city has been working with the court to find a way to provide the additional funds to complete this year, Chief Administrative Officer Andy Kopplin said. “They have been reducing expenditures,” he said. “But to be clear, they haven’t reduced them enough in 2014 to meet the budgeted amount, given the speed at which they were exhausting their reserves.”
A formal request for the $530,000 is expected to go before the council next month, Vassel said.
Council President Stacy Head bristled at the impending request, saying she didn’t understand how the court could be short this year when its 2014 budget was balanced on paper and included a plan for it to spend the money from its reserve account.
“If we thought that the court was going to spend X dollars in reserves, did you spend X plus some other number?” Head asked. “Or did you have a smaller reserve than we expected?”
Part of the problem is that the fees collected from defendants have been lower this year than projected, Willard said.
“The Judicial Expense Fund comes from the defendants that appear before us. Most if not all fall in the category of being indigent, many times uneducated and not bankable in terms of having any types of funding or reserves,” Willard said. “We are relying on putting the funds in the Judicial Expense Fund from individuals who ordinarily do not have any additional income.”
Kopplin criticized the court for not alerting the city during council hearings in July that it would need more money by the end of the year. The city was not notified until August, he said.
Later in the meeting, the judges proposed one way to generate more revenue for their needs: have the city give any proceeds from filming at the courthouse directly to the judiciary.
As it stands, filming at the crumbling Tulane Avenue and Broad Street building “does nothing for our bottom line or the flaky ceilings or the no air conditioning in our hallways and the absolute deterioration of a beautiful building,” Judge Laurie White said. “We have no money that goes to significant maintenance. We have the ability to make money from films. The city now takes the money for filming.”
White said she has met with members of the administration but hasn’t been successful in getting the funds turned over.
“This is a real problem, I think,” she said. “That money could go into our budget.”