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Sunday, December 13, 2009

The Budget & Blight - from the Mayor's Office

Mayor's Press Office
City of New Orleans
1300 Perdido Street, Suite 2E04
New Orleans, Louisiana 70112


Attention All Citizens and Neighborhood Associations,

On December 1st, the adoption of the 2010 budget for the City of New Orleans includes additional cuts to the City Attorney's Office. As we move forward to implement the City Council's 2010 Budget, I would like to first offer a basic primer on the responsibilities and caseload of the City of New Orleans City Attorney's Office. Such an understanding will assist in helping you to better understand the many functions this office provides and the impact of the cuts it faces.

Below are some basic facts that you may find helpful:

· Today, there are approximately 115,000 current and active legal matters in the various areas: General Litigation, Municipal & Traffic Court, Federal Litigation, ABO prosecution, Transactions, Housing & Finance and In-House.

· There are pending federal court matters that require, the City of New Orleans City Attorney's Office, to retain experts and incur other additional expenses. This is an additional cost. Other costs to manage the approximately 115,000 legal matters include depositions, research, payment of federal court filing fees, processing sheriff sale lien foreclosure proceedings, and retaining attorneys to assist with matters of ethical conflicts of interest. All of these costs must be paid through the "Other Operating" funds in the budget for the City Attorney's Office.

· Today, there are 46 Assistant City Attorneys. In order to handle all 115,000 legal cases, each Assistant City Attorney would handle approximately 2,500 legal cases each.

Aside from the costs of personnel, 2010 City Council Adopted Budget for the City Attorney's Office includes $4,857,023 for insurance and other costs related to risk management and an "Other Operating" amount of $700,822. Mayor Nagin's proposed budget for this office included $1.7 million for "Other Operating," but the City Council reduced the amount by $1 million.

As a result of this limited and insufficient appropriation of $700,822, the City Attorney's Office was forced to cancel contracts with all law firms, including some that assisted the City of New Orleans in taking advantage of revenue generating opportunities.

The following firms were sent notification of cancellation:

Goins Aaron, APLC
Jones Walker
First Southwest Company
Baker Donelson
LeBlanc Butler, LLC
Caraway LeBlanc
Bryant Miller Olive
Kelley Drye & Warren, LLP*

*All of the above contractors were included in the proposed 2010 budget except Kelley Drye.

Recovery has been a priority as the City Attorney's Office has worked to rebuild following Hurricane Katrina, when we lost more than 50 percent of our staff and even more of our funding and resources. One of our roles is in supporting Code Enforcement in the Administrative Hearing process where blight determinations are made. Please note that the total number of administrative hearing cases and resets handled through October 2009 is 11,070. In conjunction with their current duties and job responsibilities, the volume of hearings exceeds the capacity and resources of the existing city attorneys.

Just as importantly, the City Attorney's Office was advised in an earlier matter by a Federal Court judge that in an effort to remove any appearance of partiality by the City, it is prudent that the determination of blight, which in many instances may result in the expropriation of property, is determined by "third-party" attorneys rather than by assistant city attorneys. For example, the City of New Orleans cites, prosecutes, and defends appeals that may result from a determination of blight.

There are three firms that provide administrative hearing officers -- Leblanc, Caraway and Montgomery Barnett. Montgomery Barnett's contract expired in June 2009 and the firm has not executed the amendment sent to them by the City. The total costs to continue these services for 2010, based on anticipated increase in the volume of administrative hearings, is $250,000.

As you can clearly see, $700,882 is insufficient to ensure that the City of New Orleans, including all boards and agencies remains compliant with all local, state and federal laws.

Despite that, the Law Department has worked with Code Enforcement to reschedule all January hearings for 60 days--the hearings are not cancelled.

Again, the Law Department was forced to cut contracts. As City Attorney, I manage the limited dollars that the City Council appropriates to the Law Department's budget. Priority must be for those pending federal court matters, such as the Youth Study Center, that mandate the City Attorney's Office, to retain experts and incur other additional expenses as a requirement in resolution of the litigation.

In closing, I want to thank all of you for your continued dedication and participation with the Code Enforcement staff to achieve many of the milestones and success that we have seen in OUR fight against blight.

Penya Moses Fields
City Attorney
City of New Orleans

Kensley Evans

Lesley Eugene

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