The good news is this: City Hall in New Orleans is on track to end the year with a nearly $20 million surplus.
After years of chopping away at expenses, Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s administration has managed to accumulate some black ink on the city’s balance sheet, with an assist from rising tax revenues.
But he has accomplished this in part by putting off a collection of bills that soon may be coming due.
In fact, the $19.5 million surplus the city expects this year came to light Friday as part of a lawsuit brought by the city’s firefighters, who have been arguing for back pay from the city since Mayor Dutch Morial’s administration. They claim the city has shortchanged them on vacation time and annual raises for years.
Civil District Court Judge Kern Reese gave both sides another month to negotiate some type of payment plan for a judgment in favor of the firefighters that now amounts to more than $75.5 million.
On top of that, the mayor and firefighters will be back in court next week over the $17.5 million that Judge Robin Giarrusso has ruled the city owes the firefighters’ pension fund.
In both cases, City Hall finds itself in a game of chicken with the courts.
Last month, City Council President Stacy Head told Giarrusso she would ask her colleagues to vote on appropriating about $3.4 million for the pension system but argued the city’s budget could not bear the full judgment.
Giarrusso rejected the compromise and threatened to hold city officials in contempt of court if they couldn’t come up with more.
At the same time, a federal judge overseeing mandatory reforms at the city’s jail has begun demanding that the city pay up for improvements. U.S. District Judge Lance Africk ordered Landrieu’s administration to give Sheriff Marlin Gusman, who runs the jail, $400,000 to help outfit the Elayn Hunt Correctional Center in St. Gabriel to house mentally ill inmates, plus $200,000 a month going forward for continuing expenses.
Ultimately, the sheriff likely will need even more cash from city coffers to satisfy the court’s demands for better jail conditions, including millions of dollars for hiring more staff.
The upshot: $19.5 million may be better than a deficit, but it likely won’t be enough to satisfy all of the parties eyeing City Hall’s budget.
St. Tammany coroner notes spike in suicides
St. Tammany Parish — where the suicide rate is among the highest in the state — has seen a spike in suicides and attempted suicides since the Aug. 11 death of acclaimed actor and comedian Robin Williams, according to Coroner Charles Preston.
Before Williams’ death, 21 people had committed suicide in 2014 in St. Tammany Parish, Preston said. But in the 18 days after Williams’ death, there were five more, he said. There have also been at least five attempted suicides.
Preston cautioned that a direct cause-and-effect relationship between Williams’ death and increased suicides is impossible to prove, but he added that national news often impacts local trends. So can anniversaries of sad occasions, he said, which is one reason he and Slidell Police Chief Randy Smith were moved to issue a news release Friday.
“Today is the ninth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina’s landfall in Slidell, and that could trigger post-traumatic stress in thousands of people,” Smith said, urging any residents having suicidal thoughts to reach out for help.
The suicide prevention hotline is (800) 273-TALK (8255). The National Alliance for Mental Illness of St. Tammany can be reached at (985) 626-6538, and for those uninsured or underinsured, St. Tammany’s community health centers can be reached at (985) 607-0400 in Slidell or (985) 400-5340 in Covington.
Additionally, people worried about family or friends can call the Coroner’s Office at (985) 781-1150 during regular business hours. Outside of those hours, the Slidell Police Department can be reached at (985) 643-3131 and the Sheriff’s Office can be reached at (985) 809-8200.
Jeff Parish trying to avoid pump station tab
Jefferson Parish is looking to stave off attempts by the state to have it pay part of the cost of a massive pumping station on the West Bank built as part of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineer’s upgrades to the region’s flood reduction system.
Conflicts over who will pay the operating and maintenance costs of various projects built by the Corps have been ongoing for years, but most of those have pitted the state and regional flood protection boards against the Corps itself.
But now the state is looking for Jefferson Parish to pony up a portion of the costs associated with the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway West Closure Complex. The project, which sits near the intersection of the Algiers and Harvey canals, includes the largest pumping station of its kind in the world and gates that can close off the waterway to drain and protect West Bank areas from flooding during a hurricane.
Under the plan being pushed by the state, Jefferson Parish would pay about $1.6 million a year to help maintain and operate the complex, Jefferson Parish President John Young said. But the laws and agreements governing the operations of the complex deal with the Corps and the “local sponsor,” which in this case is the state, he said. That should mean the parish isn’t responsible for any of the costs, he said.
Jefferson Parish and the New Orleans Sewerage & Water Board, which faces similar issues, both have argued it’s not their responsibility to pay anything under those regulations, Young said.
The Parish Council approved a measure Wednesday that would allow Young and his administration to try to work something out.
“This gives us the opportunity to talk to them and continue to try to reach a solution,” Young said.
Compiled by staff writers Andrew Vanacore, Faimon Roberts III and Jeff Adelson