In The News › Mayor Mitch Landrieu lays out legislative agenda; repeats criticism of OPP consent decree

Mayor Mitch Landrieu lays out legislative agenda; repeats criticism of OPP consent decree

By Richard Rainey
The Times-Picayune

With the prospect of having to pay millions next year to reform the city’s jail and police department, Mayor Mitch Landrieu laid out his legislative agenda Wednesday with a predictable focus on ways to cut costs and increase confidence in city government.

The mayor outlined his top priorities for the session starting April 8: reforming the governance of the Sewerage & Water Board, revamping the pension plan for city firefighters; and eliminating two of the six seats on the New Orleans Juvenile Court bench.

Overshadowing his presentation at a breakfast sponsored by the Bureau of Governmental Research was the ongoing fight between Landrieu and Orleans Parish Sheriff Marlin Gusman over who should pay to fix the city jail to the new standards laid out by the U.S. Justice Department.

It’s a battle that garnered extra public attention Tuesday when graphic videos of inmates shooting heroin, playing dice, drinking beer and flashing a handgun were aired in U.S. District Judge Lance Africk’s courtroom.

“The entire management of the prison system is in disarray,” Landrieu said after his talk at the Westin Hotel at Canal Place. “One of the challenges is whether or not you would pour money into a management system that doesn’t spend money appropriately. You have to talk about that before you even get to whether you need more.”

If approved, the reforms mandated by the consent decree could cost the city $17 million to $22 million next year.

Landrieu said he learned about the explosive video footage Monday night, hours before it aired in court, but he wouldn’t discuss how his legal team knew to look for it while building its case against the Sheriff’s Office. The city claims it was hidden away in a safe in the Sheriff’s Office.

“I think nothing less than a federal receiver will give the public confidence in whatever resources they’re asked to put up, because eventually it’s their pocketbook,” he said.

Beforehand, Landrieu couched reforms of the S&WB’s governance structure as making good on his promise to the City Council in exchange for their approval of an eight-year water and sewer service rate hike that will see residents water bills doubling by 2020. Under Landrieu’s plan, which is being sponsored in Baton Rouge by state Sens. J.P. Morrell and Walt Leger III, both New Orleans Democrats, the water board would shrink from 13 members to nine. Three seats for council members and one of the mayor’s seven appointments would be eliminated. A quorum would be reduced from seven members to five, and terms would be limited to two consecutive, four-year periods.

The most controversial aspect of the legislation will likely to be Landrieu’s insistence that university presidents nominate new members that must have qualifications or experience in specific fields related to the S&WB’s work. Critics, including board members Beverly Wright and Loyce Wright, have said that policy would exclude a vast majority of New Orleanians from serving on the public board.

The Legislature put New Orleans sewer, water and drainage systems under the S&WB in 1903, and made occasional changes to the board’s structure throughout its history.

As for the firefighters’ pension, Landrieu said the city will be on the hook for $50 million this year if changes aren’t made. He used the bankrupt cities of Detroit and Stockton, Calif., as examples of doomsday scenarios that New Orleans could face if his plans to reform the pension fund fails.

“That’s dangerous and they have refused to reform and they’ve refused to pay their fair share,” he said.

Landrieu wants to bring the firefighters’ pension into closer line with recent changes to retirement plans for city employees. Firefighters pay 6 percent of their salaries toward retirement, but Landrieu wants that raised to 10 percent. They also average their final four years’ salaries to calculate annual retirement benefits, but Landrieu wants that increased to five years, lowering the annual payouts.

Similar moves for city employees have saved $3 million a year, the mayor said.

New Orleans’ two firefighter pension funds – one for employees hired before 1968 and another for those after – were created at the state level, requiring the Legislature to enact any changes.

Bad investments and poor structure have plagued the pension fund for years, Landrieu argued. BGR’s data backed him up.

“The firefighter pension fund is a debacle,” BGR Executive Director Janet Howard said. “It’s a disaster and needs to be brought under control.”

The watchdog group found the firefighters’ pension to be only 40 percent funded, or half of the federal government’s recommended standard.

In 2000, the City Council used the fund to borrow $171 million to invest in a bullish stock market. But the market tanked, and the pension plan was saddled with the debt. Then in 2008, the board managing the pension fund invested millions in a New York hedge fund running an alleged pyramid scheme that is now tangled up in court.

“When they listen to some hack investment advisor who is under investigation by the SEC, it doesn’t cost them,” Landrieu told the audience. “It costs you. Because every dollar you have to pay for it is a dollar you can’t pay on police reform or prison reform or anything else you think is important.”

Rounding out his agenda, Landrieu said he is pushing for the elimination of two Juvenile Court judges in an effort to save money. The city is building a new $34 million Juvenile Justice Center along Bayou St. John, but its plans contain only four courtrooms.
“It is my opinion based on the data and the evidence I have seen, that a city of about 360,000 people doesn’t need six juvenile court judges,” Landrieu said, adding that larger populations in Baton Rouge and Jefferson Parish only have two juvenile court judges each.

“I think we have to maintain our commitment that government is going to be lean and efficient.”

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