Orleans court clerk argues budget need

Orleans Parish Clerk of Criminal Court Arthur Morrell told the City Council on Friday that if its members don’t increase his proposed funding for 2013, layoffs are likely and warned that losing any staff could logjam court operations, if not halt them entirely.

Council members, however, questioned whether Morrell’s office needs as large a number of clerks as it employs and suggested that he could do the same amount of work with fewer staff.

“We don’t have any fat in my office,” Morrell said of his overall 90-person staff. “To cut my budget is going to cause some serious problems for Criminal District Court.”

While most offices face an 8 to 10 percent cut in funding for 2013, the city has proposed a $3.7 million budget for Morrell’s office for 2013, the same as this year. Morrell requested $4.35 million.

Morrell said he has never operated at a deficit but is $400,000 over budget this year because of inadequate funding. City Budget Director Cary Grant said retirement and health costs have increased in the past year and are largely responsible for the red ink.

Morrell argued that the city must fund his office to meet his needs since it’s a state entity and by law, they cannot cut his funding.

Council members said that they just don’t have the money to provide a budget increase at a time when the city expects to have a lower revenues as it deals with increasing personnel costs and a multimillion-dollar consent decree for the Police Department. Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s proposed 2013 budget is $ $491.4, about $5 million less than last year’s budget.

“That’s just untenable,” Councilwoman Susan Guidry said of Morrell’s statement that the city must fund what he requests. “That just doesn’t work at all.”

Guidry questioned why Morrell’s office has two clerks for each section of criminal court, for a total of 24 people. She suggested it might make more sense to cut the number of clerks and assign a handful to act as backups when others go on vacation or are sick.

Morrell countered that having two permanent clerks who cover each section improves the efficiency of the court’s operations.

Many of Morrell’s point on Friday were an echo of a civil lawsuit he filed against the city early last month.

The suit alleged that Landrieu’s administration threatened to withhold nearly $75,000 from the clerk’s office but actually withheld $141,600 when it blocked delivery of office supplies, including copy paper, and prevented the hiring of six employees who could fill vacant spots.

Days later the city relented a bit and handed over money to allow Morrell to buy the copy paper he needs to run his office. The lawsuit is still pending.

“I wouldn’t have filed that if I didn’t need to,” Morrell said after his budget hearing ended.