In The News › New Orleans Traffic Court needs someone else watching over the budget: Editorial

Aug 19, 2015

Source: NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune

Filed under: Courts, Orleans Parish

New Orleans Traffic Court needs someone else watching over the budget: Editorial

By The Editorial Board, NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune

August 19, 2015

Traffic Court in New Orleans is a fiscal mess. A new report from Inspector General Ed Quatrevaux’s office found that the court is chronically overstaffed, lacks proper budget oversight and devours resources that could be better used on other city services.

The IG argues in the July 29 report that the best way to fix the court operations is to return budget control to the City Council and stop funding the court through fees generated by traffic fines. The fine system gives judges an incentive to find people guilty to bring in more money to the court, which presents a conflict of interest.

“We think City Council budgetary oversight will cause Traffic Court to be more efficient,” Mr. Quatrevaux said in a written statement. “The Court will have to submit budget requests that are based on rational defensible needs, and in order to do that, they’re going to have to measure their performance.”

Performance has had nothing to do with the court’s spending in the past. Neither has the actual workload.

The inspector general report included a discussion from a 2011 City Council hearing: “Traffic Court judges admitted during the meeting that they could not justify the number of staff members assigned to each judge. … One judge admitted that he had ‘to find work for them to do.’ “

The IG found that while the cost of running the court increased in 2009 and 2010, “the workload and output decreased.”

The findings are not a surprise. The inspector general referenced multiple reports critical of the court’s structure and performance.

In 2012, the PFM Group based in Philadelphia said Traffic Court officials conceded in interviews “that it would be possible to perform its current administrative functions with one-quarter fewer staff.”

A 2013 Bureau of Governmental Research study concluded the four-judge court could handle its caseload with only 1.2 judges. A previous inspector general report came to essentially the same conclusion.

And last year the inspector general outlined abuses by Vandale Thomas during his tenure as an accountant for Traffic Court. He was convicted in federal court in October on 11 counts of embezzlement and money laundering. A federal jury found that he stole more than $680,000 over three years by inflating invoices and taking them to judges piecemeal to avoid anyone noticing.

This is how lax Traffic Court operations have been.

Mr. Quatrevaux’s recommendations ought to get the Legislature’s attention. That is where the structural changes have to be made.

It is the Legislature that took the City Council out of the budget equation and “effectively authorized the Court to grow as big — and as expensive — as the judges saw fit independent of the Court’s workload or the City’s other financial needs,” the IG’s July 29 report said.

Deputy Mayor Andy Kopplin issued a statement in support of the report’s recommendations.

“As Traffic Court is a local court, its budget should be set by the Mayor and the City Council through the normal annual budgeting processes …” Mr. Kopplin said. “Additionally, we have already started making some changes recommended in this report, and will carefully review each recommendation to take additional steps where necessary.”

The court’s reaction was very different. Traffic Court Judicial Administrator Debra Hall said the report was “stale” because it stopped with 2012. She said that overlooks the fact that the court has been reducing expenses since then and had a clean financial audit in 2014.

Even if the court is showing a belated sense of fiscal responsibility, though, that doesn’t change the structural problems outlined by the IG. The lack of checks and balances over the court’s budget has led to years of waste. That unfettered ability to spend money needs to end.

Aug 19, 2015

Source: NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune

Filed under: Courts, Orleans Parish

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