Issues complicate budget discussions
New Orleans is the only city or parish in Louisiana with separate courts to handle municipal and traffic offenses, and on Monday they both presented new headaches to City Council members considering the Landrieu administration’s proposed $504 million operating budget.
One court asked for another $2 million in 2014, while the other said the way its operations are financed is likely unconstitutional and could cause the court legal problems if someone files a suit.
That warning came from Traffic Court Judge Mark Shea, who said only 10 percent of the court’s proposed $4.2 million budget for next year will come from the city’s general fund.
Almost all the rest will come from court fines and fees, creating at least the impression that it is in the self-interest of judges and court employees to find defendants guilty and to impose heavy penalties on them.
Even if they resist such temptation, the system gives the “appearance of bias” and could well be struck down by a judge, Shea suggested, citing a law review article forwarded to the judges by Councilwoman Susan Guidry.
The problem could be eliminated, he said, if the court deposited all the fines and fees it receives in the general fund and the city then funded its budget as it does other courts and city agencies, provided the level of funding was not linked to the amount of money the city receives from the court.
Guidry said after the meeting she has been suggesting such a change since 2011 but until now has faced opposition from the Traffic Court judges, who perhaps feared that — like other courts — they might wind up getting considerably less from the city than they think they need.
Guidry also said she thinks such a change would take action by the Legislature.
Traffic Court actually is expected to generate $11.2 million in revenue this year — down from $12.7 million in 2012, as police officers write fewer traffic tickets .
Most of the money already goes to the city’s general fund and to a long list of other agencies, including the State Police, Crimestoppers, Criminal District Court, the District Attorney’s Office, the Public Defender’s Office, the Supreme Court and Municipal Court.
As for the Municipal Court judges, they asked for another $2 million in 2014 on top of the $2 million the administration proposes to give that court. Judge Desiree Charbonnet said it will cost more than $4 million to run the court next year and the internal funds the court has used to stay solvent this year are about exhausted.
She suggested the city could find the money by cutting $2 million from the Police Department budget or by ending all funding for the Public Defender’s Office or the Vera Institute’s pre-trial services program for criminal defendants.
Comparing the city to “a mother who feeds the child down the street but not her own,” Charbonnet said it is legally obligated to fund Traffic Court’s operations but has no duty to pay for the public defender, a state responsibility, or Vera, whose work she said duplicates that of other agencies.
Those proposals, however, drew little support from council members.
The council seemed more intrigued by another of Charbonnet’s proposals: letting Municipal Court take over housing-code violation cases that are now handled by administrative law judges.
Charbonnet, however, said she has no idea how much the city is spending on the current arrangement or how much additional revenue the court might derive from taking over the code-enforcement cases.
In addition, the proposal would simply add to the workload for judges who already complain that they are handling more than 30,000 cases a year, including 80 percent of all people arrested or given citations by New Orleans police.
The types of cases they handle range from theft, aggravated assault and domestic violence to truancy and animal abuse.
City Budget Director Cary Grant said the court should be able to get along with just $2 million from the city’s general fund next year if the judges dip into their Building and Maintenance Fund.
That fund, which Guidry said has about $670,000, has been built up over many years in anticipation of planned renovations to the Traffic and Municipal Court building, which will force the courts to relocate for as long as 18 to 24 months, perhaps beginning in 2014.
Charbonnet said the judges don’t think it would be legal to use money collected for one purpose for a totally different purpose, but Guidry said the Jindal administration has done the same thing many times.