In The News › Nagin panel to back major changes

Dec 31, 2005

Source: Times-Picayune

Nagin panel to back major changes

Nagin panel to back major changes
Single N.O. assessor, court merger urged
Saturday, December 31, 2005
By Bruce Eggler
Staff writer

A committee of Mayor Ray Nagin’s Bring New Orleans Back Commission appears poised to recommend significant changes in the way the city is governed, such as consolidating all property tax assessments in one office, reducing the City Council’s authority over zoning and land-use decisions, and merging the civil and criminal court systems.

The commission’s Government Effectiveness Committee received a report Friday from a subcommittee looking at changes in the way New Orleans government is structured.

The subcommittee recommended a long list of changes, including:

— Consolidating the seven district assessors’ offices into one “independent, professional” assessment office, with the assessor perhaps appointed by an autonomous board similar to the Civil Service Commission.

— Overhauling the city’s permitting process in unspecified ways to make it more efficient.

— Eliminating the City Council’s power to override decisions by the City Planning Commission, the Historic District Landmarks Commission and the Board of Zoning Adjustments, with appeals of those agencies’ decisions possible only to the courts.

— Completing work on the Planning Commission’s long-delayed master plan and revised comprehensive zoning ordinance, and winning council approval for the two documents.

— Promulgating new Landmarks Commission regulations that would eliminate what some critics have seen as that agency’s penchant for making arbitrary decisions.

— Consolidating the city’s dual court systems and reducing the number of judgeships.

— Consolidating the New Orleans Police Department with at least some of the other government police and security forces in the city, such as the Levee Board police, Harbor Police and Crescent City Connection police.

— Creating a “transparent, standard, competitive process” for awarding professional service contracts, such as to architects and lawyers, which are not subject to the public bid law.

— Merging the Orleans Levee Board into a larger regional levee board.

Una Anderson, an Orleans Parish School Board member and executive director of the New Orleans Neighborhood Development Collaborative, is chairwoman of the subcommittee that presented the recommendations.

The full Government Effectiveness Committee took no action on the suggestions, but Chairman Gary Solomon said the committee expects to present its final report to Nagin’s commission by Jan. 19.

The committee, the commission or Nagin can reject any of the suggestions, and it is far from certain that any of them will be implemented. There is likely to be strong political opposition to many, and some would require amending the state Constitution or the City Charter.

Another subcommittee, this one on ethics, was less specific in its recommendations but said it favors enacting strong policies to eliminate conflicts of interest, regulate lobbyists, protect whistle-blowers and enforce a code of ethics for local public officials.

A third subcommittee, looking at ways to finance government operations as the city tries to recover from Hurricane Katrina, said it has looked at several options but has made no decisions.

But subcommittee Chairwoman Janet Howard, president of the Bureau of Governmental Research, said one idea that should be pursued is expanding the city’s property tax base, such as by eliminating some exemptions for nonprofit institutions and limiting the application of the homestead exemption.

Howard also called for having the city use zero-based budgeting, which requires that each government program justify its existence and budget “from the ground up” each fiscal year, rather than having its budget based on how much money it got in the past.

Linda Walker, president of the League of Women Voters of New Orleans, said she was disappointed that the committee was not further along in its work and said she fears its final report will be the product of only two or three people, rather than reflecting the views of the full committee membership and public input.

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Bruce Eggler can be reached at beggler@timespicayune.com or (504) 826-3320.

Dec 31, 2005

Source: Times-Picayune

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