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N.O. Juvenile Court judges, coroner tell council they need more money

By Claire Galofaro

The Advocate

November 12, 2013

Mayor Mitch Landrieu, who lost his bid in the Legislature this year to slash the number of Juvenile Court judges in New Orleans, has proposed a 2014 budget for the court that would force it to downsize anyway, the City Council was told Monday.

The mayor’s proposed budget trims the court’s financing by $600,000, from more than $3.6 million last year to just over $3 million.

Chief Judge Ernestine Gray told the council if it approves the mayor’s budget figure, the court would have to lay off 13 employees and close an after-school program aimed at supervising young offenders during the hours they’re most likely to commit more crimes.

She did not expressly ask for more money, but she intimated the cuts would have dire consequences for the youthful criminals that the court supervises.

Orleans Parish Juvenile Court has long been in the mayor’s cross-hairs.

It has six judges, but a 2010 caseload analysis by the state Supreme Court found that the city has an overall abundance of judges, and that Juvenile Court is the most bloated of all: One juvenile judge is all the city needs, the study found.

That finding was echoed by a report this fall by the Bureau of Governmental Research, which also put the proper number of juvenile judges at one.

Landrieu pushed a bill in the Legislature that would have reduced the court from six judges to four. He said the move would redirect $827,000 a year from judicial salaries, benefits and support staff to youth outreach services.

The bill was considered a sure bet to pass — so sure that the administration designed a new courthouse, now under construction, with only four courtrooms. The bill failed to pass, and the six judgeships remain.

The city budgeted $2.6 million for the court this year, the same amount it received last year. The court supplemented that figure with $1 million from its own reserves, allowing it to keep its payroll intact.

Gray said Monday that the administration forbade the judges from using another $1 million next year from their reserves, which would be nearly depleted if that trend continued.

Instead, the court will add only $409,000 from its own coffers to fund positions. Ten people, who hold mostly clerical positions, will be let go, Gray said.

She repeatedly called them “constitutionally mandated personnel.”

Councilwoman Susan Guidry questioned the meaning of that phrase.

Gray conceded the positions are mandated not by the Louisiana Constitution but by a statute that requires the city to pay for “a bailiff, a stenographer and such stenographic, clerical and other personnel as may be deemed necessary to make the functions of the court effective and provide adequate service.”

Gray said the city also required that the judges eliminate a program called the Evening Reporting Center, and its three employees, bringing the total number of jobs lost to 13.

The center costs $110,000 a year and oversees 10 children at a time, five days a week, from the end of the school day to 9 p.m. The city rerouted that money to pay for an updated case management system.

The after-school program operates out one of the Boys and Girls Club of Southeast Louisiana’s clubs on South Broad Street, which donates the facilities to the program.

Lawyer Robert L. Bonnaffons, the club’s chairman, made an impassioned plea to the council not to terminate the program.

He called it “an unqualified success” and said the $110,000 spent on it “is nothing compared to how much it would cost to pay for incarceration of these kids who have no place else to go.”

The program had another friend on the council Monday: Judge Gray’s husband, City Councilman James Gray, who is also the former president of the Boys and Girls Club.

He pointed out that incarcerating a child at the city’s Youth Study Center costs $260 each day, more than $90,000 a year. One child saved from jail would nearly make up the program’s cost, he said.

Councilwoman LaToya Cantrell countered that for $110,000 a year, the program should be able to deal with more than 10 kids at a time.

In the end, the council did not give the court any indication on whether it might increase its 2014 funding.

Orleans Parish Coroner Frank Minyard also asked the council for more money Monday.

“We really, really need to give John some nights off,” he told the council, referring to his chief investigator, John Gagliano. “I don’t think he’s in danger of dying, but he has a very, very, very dangerous job.”

Minyard said his office needs to hire a driver and another investigator, so Gagliano can take a day off now and then.

The mayor increased his budget proposal for the office by $118,500 from this year’s figure, to nearly $1.8 million for next year.

Exactly how much the two new positions might cost remained unclear Monday, and Minyard promised to get the council hard numbers.

Council members suggested they might try to find him more money.

“I agree that you’re understaffed and underfunded,” Guidry said. “We’ve been looking at some ways to work on that.”

Minyard said he’s been considering retirement. After 40 years in office, he said, “I thought it would be time for me to ride off in the sunset.”

“We can’t let Mr. Minyard leave on a sad note,” Council President Jackie Clarkson said. “Not after his years of service.”

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