Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Yes, Virginia Believes There is a Santa Claus

Or, maybe it's the reform fairy.

Dr. John gave a wonderful interview* on Channel 4 last week. It wasn't primarily political, you should listen to it to hear him say, "I want Irma to win it (the Grammy)". However, when asked about the recovery, he said, "I'm upset with all of them (the mayor, the governor and the president). He added that it wasn't the time to be wasting money on politics as usual and specifically cited palm trees on Canal Street when there were so many more useful things the money could be spent on.

Also last week, at The Samuel DeWitt Proctor Conference, The Reverend Dr. Jeremiah Wright called Bush and Nagin the "the twiddledee and twiddledum" of the Katrina recovery. Coincidentally, in his criticism of Nagin, Dr. Wright mentioned wasting money on palm trees on Canal Street. Clearly Dr. John and Dr. Wright believe that the mayor would rather spend money on photo-ops than on more useful, but less glamorous endeavors. It's entirely possible that their thoughts were less charitable than even that.

However, according to Sunday's paper:
"These challenges have been very, very difficult for him," said (Virginia)Boulet, referring to Nagin's post-storm budget-cutting, led by the elimination of nearly 3,000 city jobs. "If he wasn't paying attention to the balance sheet, we would be having a whole different set of problems. He has been a good steward of the public money."

I'm more inclined to agree with the minister and the singer than the lawyer. To explain why requires a long-winded, somewhat personal rehash of things that I've said here before.

During one of the election debates, the mayor said something along the lines of, "I've made the tough cuts, I laid off nearly 3,000 employees, I've cut spending to the bone." As one of those nearly 3,000 employees, my thoughts were:
Nagin you worthless sack of shit, you're the worst kind of coward, a coward pretending to be a hero. I'd be shocked if a dozen of those employees blame you for the layoffs. You made the easy cuts that make good sound bites, now you're too wimpy or too lazy to do the hard work of putting the city's limited money where it would do the most good.

When the layoffs were first announced, I didn't blame the mayor -- I don't think anybody did. At first, I was amused by how unaffected the mayor's office was by the cuts, but it wasn't until I found out that the city only had two electrical inspectors that I was appalled that the mayor's office had a staff of 65.

It was during December of 2005, that I realized the mayor's handling of the city's finances was as big a problem as the lack of federal funds, at least in the short run. At some point in November or December, I found out that the city only had two electrical inspectors. I read an article at the beginning of December that said the head of NORD was resigning because she had been unable to return after Katrina. Since the layoffs took effect at the beginning of October, I thought that raised an obvious question. More importantly, the article stated that the deputy director of NORD would serve as acting director until a new one was hired. Seemed odd that a department that had gone from 400 to 20 employees in layoffs that the mayor described as "pretty permanent" still needed a director and deputy director, especially since the mayor had scoffed at pay cuts for remaining employees. Of course, I realized that the library had gone from 200 to 20 employees and still had a City Librarian and Assistant City Librarian, on top of that, most of the 20 were more highly paid employees in supervisory positions. It dawned on me that the city payroll was somewhat top heavy (comparable to the IBM rowing team in a tech joke), but I didn't see what difference consolidating a few upper level positions would make with the city facing such a financial crisis. Soon after, a letter to the editor appeared, that I'll reprint in full:
I love New Orleans, but can't take the banana republic mentality anymore. I've accepted a job out of town and my wife, my three kids and I are leaving. That's it. I'm done.

I have loved the city for its uniqueness of character and its joie de vivre. But the frustration of waiting for an electrical inspector at my rental property, in an area Uptown off St. Charles Avenue that's long had juice, has put me over the edge.

Mayor Ray Nagin has pleaded with folks to come back. But he won't even see to it that a major American city has a streamlined way of turning on electricity to individual houses that weren't flooded.

I've had enough! Good-bye!

Maybe the letter writer should have been more patient, but it's difficult o make that argument when there were more than thirty employees in the mayor's office for every wiring inspector. Still, it wasn't until I went to City Hall to make my December COBRA payment (mail service at the time made that advisable) and saw the line to get into the permits office that things really clicked. I couldn't find out exactly how much the city's department heads earned, a year later the city still gave misleading figures, but did find out that they had received huge pay increases three years earlier.

By cutting payroll at the top, the city couldn't have done much about its overall budget shortfall, but it could have found the money to replace the eight electrical inspectors that the city lost. The city could have even found the money to put a few more people in the permits office. Of course, the mayor would have had to cut some of his office staff (or re-assigned them to permits) and told his "all-star" team that they'd have to give up a portion of their pay raises and re-assign their top staff to lower positions, at least until the crisis was over. In other words, the mayor would have had to make "tough cuts."

On January of last year the Picayune reported that the city had hired a firm to supply electrical inspectors and it would soon have ten on the job. Of course, there was still the logjam in the permits and planning offices. Over nine months later, the paper reported that the city had never replaced the lost wiring inspectors. But the Picayune runs editorials calling the governor dishonest and Virginia Boulet calls the mayor a good steward of public funds.

*If the Dr. John link doesn't take you directly to the interview, just type in "Dr. John" and click multimedia. The article about the head of NORD had the headline: Heads of NORD, Public Works resign and was dated 12/05/05. It also seems suspicious that 65 out of 100 mayor's office staffers had been able to return by the time the layoffs took effect in October. I suspect they got a longer grace period than other city employees. I suppose it's possible that the mayor thought it more important to offer space on one of the cruise ships to members of his personal staff than to, say, wiring inspectors.

Virginia has gulped down the kool-aid. I guess she doesn't ever want to have a political future. Well, she may have one, just not one that requires citizens to elect her. One that requires corrupt politicians to use her.
A close friend of mine is a cousin of hers; FWIW he's sure of her integrity. Extra bit of trivia, my friend's sister--obviously also Boulet's cousin -- was a neighbor for Mitch. He no longer lives in N.O., but he couldn't explain her endorsement of Nagin, but he's sure there wasn't any deal involved. My guess is she thought she'd have access and be able to use it to do good. She probably still convinces herself of something like that. My feeling is that she, Watson, Couhig and any other honest person in the administration could do the most good by saying any more demands for FOIA requests and I quit. Unless she, Couhig and everybody else in the administration are quasi-Straussians who believe the public only needs to know what it needs to know. That's giving a little too much credit.

Still, it chaps my ass to hear Nagin praised for the layoffs. They were easy, obvious and everybody expected them. Like I said, he didn't make the tough cuts. You might as well praise the heads of UNO, Tulane and Loyola for their cuts. Even if you argue that they were necessary, that doesn't make them laudable.
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