Court clerk seeks $1.1 million more than allotted
Criminal District Court Clerk Arthur Morrell, who is fighting the city in court about cuts to his budget last year, resumed his battle over money Tuesday, telling the New Orleans City Council that he needs $1.1 million more than the Landrieu administration has proposed giving his office in 2014.
Morrell said he’d like to hire seven new staff members and give his employees a small raise to keep their salaries in line with other court employees.
While other departments are facing cuts in funding for 2013, the city has proposed a $3.7 million budget for Morrell’s office for 2014, the same as he received this year. Morrell requested $4.8 million.
The mayor has proposed an overall city operating budget of $504.3 million for 2014.
Morrell said he needs 90 people for his office, seven more than he has now. He also wants to raise salaries by about 2.5 percent.
If his budget is not increased, he said, he could be forced to reduce his staff by nine people.
As happened last year, when he also asked for more money than he was granted, Morrell said he has never overspent his budget and only appears to have gone into the red because of inadequate funding from the city — the claim that prompted him to sue the city last year for money he claims his office was shorted.
Since the clerk’s office is a state entity, Morrell argues, the city cannot cut the funding he needs to operate.
The suit alleged Landrieu’s administration illegally withheld $140,000 when it blocked delivery of office supplies, including copy paper, and prevented the hiring of six employees who could fill vacant spots. It said those actions violated state law because they meant the office could not properly operate.
The administration said the cuts were part of across-the-board reductions needed to keep the overall city budget in balance.
The 4th Circuit Court of Appeal ruled last week that Morrell’s office is governed by state law so the city cannot cut the salaries of his staff.
While Morrell trumpeted the ruling as a win, the Landrieu administration disagreed, saying the appellate court had simply sent the case back to a Civil District Court judge for reconsideration.
The administration said it believes it has met the legal obligation to provide enough money for the office to operate and has the authority to ensure the office operates within its budget.
At Tuesday’s budget hearing, Morrell repeated his demand for the money he said he needs to operate properly, while the council and administration asked if there are ways he can streamline his operations to reduce expenses.
Councilwoman Susan Guidry asked Morrell if he ever took up Chief Administrative Officer Andy Kopplin on an offer to have a team from the city visit the clerk’s office to look for ways to increase efficiency.
Morrell said the city sent the deputy city attorney who was involved with fighting his lawsuit and an information-technology staffer who, Morrell claimed, had no experience at criminal court and did not understand the office’s needs. As a result, he said, he refused to cooperate with them, and Kopplin never got back to him.
Kopplin said he never heard about Morrell’s complaints.
“Either the clerk wants our help or he doesn’t,” Kopplin said. “It’s pretty clear from his testimony this morning he doesn’t want our help.”
Morrell said he would consider accepting help from City Hall if he received a list in advance of who would be sent to help figure out how to streamline the office. He noted, however, that the city’s suggestions would be just that, not a binding agreement, and then again told the council he needs more money.
“This is about efficiency,” Guidry said.
“I think it (the clerk’s office) is efficient right now,” Morrell said.
Morrell’s wife, Councilwoman Cynthia Hedge-Morrell, did not attend the session.