New Orleans' Traffic Court is $2.1 million in the red, a dire situation caused by years of penny-pinching by city officials and a diminished police force that has slacked off on writing traffic tickets.
That’s according to an independent audit out this month that shines new light on the growing gap between assets and liabilities the court has been running up since 2012.
While it’s no secret that Traffic Court and other agencies that rely on ticket revenue have been hit hard by the shrunken New Orleans Police Department’s shift in focus toward violent crime, the court's annual audit shows just how deep the damage is.
Data obtained by The New Orleans Advocate — which show a 55 percent drop in the size of the NOPD’s Traffic Division over the past eight years — further highlight the problem.
“Law enforcement is doing the best they can with the resources they have,” Traffic Court Judicial Administrator Debra Hall said Monday. “But the predominant driver in terms of revenue — tickets — has decreased over the past few years.”
The on-paper deficit, which grew by $537,000 last year, doesn’t mean the court will have to close its doors. This year, the city has agreed to pay the court’s salaries, which account for most of its spending. The city also pays for courthouse maintenance and utilities.
The court also would like to write off the $2.8 million in payroll reimbursements it owes City Hall, which would erase its deficit entirely. But city officials said that would be illegal under state law.
The audit indicates that the decline in ticket-writing, combined with cash grabs by City Hall that officials in Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s administration have said were needed to help save the city from bankruptcy, amounted to a one-two punch for the court.
The court took in about $2.5 million in ticket revenue in 2015, down from $2.8 million in 2014 and $3.4 million in 2013, according to audits from those years. In earlier years, the court received as much as $4.7 million annually. The money comes from tickets written by the NOPD, State Police and other agencies.
The drop in ticket revenue comes as the NOPD’s Traffic Division has been slashed by more than half over the past eight years, from 67 officers in 2008 to 30 officers in 2016, NOPD data show.
The shift was intentional, NOPD spokesman Tyler Gamble said. “The reduced manpower is the direct result of a strategic decision by the superintendent to concentrate our limited manpower on calls for service rather than traffic enforcement,” he said. “Obviously, there is also an impact from the broad decline in manpower, as there are fewer officers on the force certified in speed enforcement than were on the force several years ago.”
The NOPD redeployed nearly 100 additional officers to patrol duties this spring after an investigation by The New Orleans Advocate and WWL-TV into sluggish police response times to emergency calls.
As part of that effort, the NOPD’s motorcycle unit, which had largely been used for traffic enforcement, is now used mostly to respond to traffic accidents and other service calls, Gamble added. The department, however, still receives state grants to help catch drunk drivers, he noted.
The city’s recent brake-tag redesign was supposed to make it easier for officers to see expired or fake brake tags — for years a top reason people were pulled over. Brake tag ticket revenue, at only $776,485 last year, was down by nearly 50 percent from 2008, data from Hall’s office show. It's not clear yet whether the new design will cause that figure to rise.
City budget crunching also has hurt the court’s balance sheet. In 2010, the court’s overall ticket revenue hit $4.7 million, an eight-year peak. But that same year, Landrieu reduced the court’s appropriation. The city used to give the court about $900,000 annually; while city officials have paid Traffic Court employees’ salaries in the years since then, the court typically has reimbursed the city for that cost, the audit by the firm Carr, Riggs & Ingram Inc. said.
In 2011, the city also asked Traffic Court for $2.4 million to help close a city deficit, auditors noted.
Inspector General Ed Quatrevaux is calling upon city leaders to seek changes to state law th…
Traffic Court has been criticized in past years for questionable accounting practices, though recent audits have pinned the blame for the deficit on reduced ticket revenue and increased payouts to the city.
The Inspector General’s Office in 2011 rapped the court after a politically connected consultant and a regular at area casinos, Vandale Thomas, pocketed $1.3 million over three years in fees paid by the court for work he did not do. Thomas is serving a three-year stint in federal prison for his crime.
The Legislative Auditor's Office also has chided the court over Thomas and because some employees used the court’s credit card but didn’t turn in receipts.
Hall said the court has improved its system of checks and balances. It no longer uses consultants, and anyone who uses the court’s lone credit card must turn in receipts and clear the expense with the court’s finance staff, she said.
The inspector general also urged the City Council to oversee Traffic Court’s budget, and for the first time time in years, the council did so this year, Hall said.
Under a state law passed this spring after years of debate, Traffic Court will merge with Municipal Court in January, a measure aimed at further belt-tightening.
Accountant Vandale Thomas, who managed to bill $1.3 million to New Orleans Traffic Court ove…