New Orleans City Council looks at crime spending

Ronal Serpas
Ronal Serpas

Police Chief Ronal Serpas told City Council members Wednesday that he spent $600,000 on overtime for officers during the Super Bowl, almost a third of what the department has set aside for the entire year.

Chief Traffic Court Judge Robert Jones said police are handing out far fewer tickets than years past, putting a crimp in his court’s income.

And Chief Municipal Court Judge Desiree Charbonnet said she feels unsafe in the building she has to work in every day because of postponed security upgrades, describing an “unsettling” episode recently in which a defendant confronted her in the hallway.

All in all, three hours of discussion at the City Council’s Criminal Justice Committee on Wednesday yielded few surprise revelations about the overall financial health of New Orleans’ criminal justice entities, the subject of a series of meetings scheduled by Councilwoman Susan Guidry over the next month. Though Traffic Court is expecting a $192,000 budget shortfall because of unforeseen expenses, NOPD and municipal court said they are more or less on budget.

Instead it was some of the details and asides that stood out.

Serpas said providing security for the NFL championship game at the Superdome ran the city $600,000 in overtime for officers over the course of about six days, adding that Mardi Gras cost more money than usual in overtime this year simply because the department has fewer officers than during previous seasons.

“As we have a collapsing number of officers,” Serpas said, “the only way to have more of them on the street is to pay more of them extra.”

So far, the department has spent $1.8 million of its $2.1 million overtime budget and expects a deficit of $3.6 million for the year, but Serpas said once the department gets reimbursed for spending under certain grants, that gap should be erased.

Despite fewer officers, Serpas said the department is making progress on crime, citing a 24 percent drop in murders, year-to-date, and a nearly 12 percent drop in all violent crimes. He said crime overall is flat.

At the same time, a smaller number of officers assigned to traffic duty is translating into fewer tickets, which means less revenue for the courts.

Jones, from traffic court, gave the council a presentation projecting that his court will handle about 126,000 violations this year, down about 26 percent from 2011, when the court processed more than 170,000 violations.

He said that will translate into a drop in revenue of about 11 percent, down to $11.5 million from $12.9 million.

It’s a less drastic decline than the number of violations, he said, because the court has taken other steps to boost revenue, like making it easier for violators to pay online and sending out more frequent notices that the money is due.

Jones also pointed to a number of unplanned expenditures that have cropped up this year. The court has had to pay auditing companies to clean up problems with its accounting practices, an expense that doubled from an estimated $30,000 to $60,000.

On top of that, the court had to buy a new computer server for its case management system from IBM — another $33,265 — because the last one got so old that the company won’t be able to service it anymore.

Then there were $11,000 in security upgrades and $98,351 for temporary trailers that the court never actually moved into. Jones said City Hall told him to get ready for building renovations which were then put off, so he finally sent the trailers back.

Charbonnet, who presides over municipal court in the same building, had a similar complaint, saying her court has been paying for temporary storage because she was also told the renovations were coming sooner.

For the most part, though, Charbonnet said her concerns were about safety, not money. “We have a security issue at our court,” Charbonnet said, pointing out that inmates use the same elevator that judges do and are sometimes dropped off in the same parking lot where judges park their cars.

“Deputies are escorting inmates past my car as I sit there and I’m going to be passing judgement upon those people,” she said.

Fortunately, Charbonnet said, the $25,000 in security upgrades the court is planning will come out of an established maintenance fund that has about $600,000 in it. She said the court plans on using the fund to replace a broken PA system — $20,000 — and broken furniture worth about $7,000.