Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Ten Per Cent

Unless I'm missing something, the mayor proposes to spend at least 10% of next year's projected $405B budget on sanitation. The mayor's accepted bids totalling $26.8M for the city's new and improved garbage collection. The bids for the remaining contract vary between just under $6M and $19.5M and there's also the cost of dumping the trash, plus the cost of running the sanitation department -- probably $40-$50M altogether. In 2005 the sanitation department had a total budget of $35M when the contract with Waste Management was for $18M. It had a budget of $21M this year, of which $9M was the Waste Management contract (Google "New Orleans operating budget", you'll find a powerpoint presentation, if you're interested--no link to copy).

Why Bother?

I had planned a short post about the serious point behind my sugestion that the mayor should just spread his arms and say, "so big," whenever he's asked a question. If the mayor basically just makes up numbers, then the words accompanying those numbers have no real meaning and accountabilty becomes a joke. I had planned to point out how the city budget affects other issues and the council's failure to question the mayor's CAO and CFO about his pay raise proposal should worry everybody and then take a short break from blogging. Hell, the council didn't even notice that though the mayor talks about restoring the police force to its pre-Katrina size, he has no plans to do so. That means that this year's most pressing issue will again be a problem next year.

After reading today's paper, I don't see the point. Either I'm crazy, or that city has a thoroughly corrupt (or insane) mayor, a cowed feckless city council and an utterly frivolous press corps. In an article that would been better for April Fool's Day than Halloween we read that the president of the city council has a plan to deal with the city's shortage of electrical inspectors:
Thomas said the city could benefit from electricians donating one day a week to help the city's inspectors ensure public safety as homeowners rebuild.

We also read that Stacy Head now thinks it crazy to allow people to self-inspection, after the city council voted to allow self-inspection in August.

Since January, I've suspected that we weren't getting the whole story when we were told that electrical inspector shortage had beensolved:
Unpowered FEMA trailers have residents steamed
The department’s electricity inspectors fell from 10 to two in the weeks after Katrina while permit applications soared 80 percent, said Greg Meffert, Mayor Ray Nagin’s chief technology officer. The staffing problem was not the result of mass layoffs after the storm. Instead, some inspectors failed to return to work, and others have quit, Meffert said.

After several false starts, the department last week hired a private firm to resupply the depleted electricity inspector ranks. The department should have 10 inspectors working by the end of the week and more on the way, Meffert said.

Nine and a half months ago, I assumed that the four month delay was due to the great care that Greg Meffert takes in selecting private contractors (well, I suspected something), but now everybody seems to have forgotten that the problem was pronounced solved back in January.

So nine months (the mayor would say almost a year) after the problem's been solved, we find out that the city's has both monetary and safety issues caused by the lack of electrical inspectors. Yet the council's budget committee didn't ask Brenda Hatfield and Reginald Zeno about that when they discussed pay raises? Of course, the city council couldn't be bothered to ask just how much the mayor's top aides actually make before voting them a pay raise. Oliver Thomas would rather ask for volunteers than ask a mayor a serious question. Am I crazy, or is it time for somebody (outside of the blogosphere) to come out and call the mayor a liar?

Monday, October 30, 2006

Humpty Dumpty: The Post-Katrina Version

`When I use a word,' Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, `it means just what I choose it to mean -- neither more nor less.'
Through the Looking Glass, Chapter VI

When Ray Nagin uses a number, it means just what he chooses it to mean -- (invariably) either more or less (than any reasonable person would expect it to mean). It really should come as no surprise that when Nagin promised new contracts for garbage collection totaling $20M, he really meant $25M, which really meant $26.8M. Or that at least $5.89M will be added to that, with more cost to be added on top of that. That's as much precision as anybody has expected from the mayor for at least a year now. The mayor makes up a number, nobody questions him on it and it becomes accepted as fact. Nagin understands this business. The press hasn't demanded accurate numbers since Katrina, possibly since he took office. Frankly, I can't understand why James Gill is suddenly getting indignant.

Let's review, last September the mayor announced that he expected to layoff 3,000 employees in order to save $3M-$5M a month. I thought that the projected savings sounded remarkably imprecise; when I asked a friend who owns a business, he didn't need to think about it -- to only save $5M by laying off 3,000 employees, they'd all have to be minimum wage employees or devoid of benefits. Of course, the city ended up laying off 2,400 employees*. Of course, estimates are always imprecise, but the Nagin administration still uses the 3,000 figure when it suits its purposes. This morning on the WWL morning news, (City Finance Director) Reginald Zeno said that the city took the tough step of laying off 3,000 workers to reduce the city debt. When a member of the Nagin administration says 3,000, it means just what he chooses it to mean. In the same interview, Zeno said that the the city budget went from $480M in 2005 to $325M in 2006. Yet, when the mayor gave his 100 day presentation, he said that the city was operating on a quarter of its pre-Katrina budget. Rather than question that figure, The Picayune complimented the mayor for doing so much with so little. It seemed quite content that a quarter meant just what the mayor chose it to mean. Though it's not important, nobody's even questioned the mayor when he's said he had "about a 10 hour window" when he could have done more before ordering a mandatory evacuation. It's not a major issue, I would feel petty for bringing it up if it weren't so typical of the mayor's immunity from precision. Clearly 10 hours meant just what the mayor chose it to mean. To be fair, the mayor (or a close associate) has given very specific financial information at least once. Of course, nobody in the local press found it noteworthy that it was obviously a bald-faced lie.

More recently, when the mayor proposed pay raises for municipal workers, the reporter covering the story pointed out that the administration's cost estimates didn't account for a sizable number of employees, but the Times Picayune saw no reason to emphasize that fact. So why is the Times Picayune suddenly acting like it's news that the mayor chose for $20M to really mean $30-$40M with some costs unaccounted for? Who's changing the rules of the game here?

I'd like to suggest that it would save a lot of trouble if the mayor just stopped using numbers altogether. When asked about the evacuation, the mayor should just hold his thumb to his forefinger and say, "Well, you know man, there was a teeny weeny little window of opportunity when I could have done more." When discussing any proposed increase in city expenditures, he should hold his hands about a foot apart and widen them as he says, "It will cost some money, but we've got this great big federal loan." Finally, as he spreads his arms all the way, he should say, "And besides, it will just be a small slice of that great big exploding pie." Such answers would certainly be absurd, especially from a mayor who promised transparency. But they wouldn't be any absurd than the manufactured numbers that he's been using to answer questions, and they would certainly be a lot more honest.

*The Sewerage and Water Board also eliminated about 500 positions, but it's an entirely separate budgeting entity from the City of New Orleans and most of the eliminated positions were employees who failed to return after Katrina -- not layoffs. In most ways totally separate from the "3,000 tough cuts" that the mayor likes to cite. Also, nobody in the press seems to question the figure.

Saturday, October 28, 2006

I Had No Idea

A third or more of the city's budget is spent on firefighters' salaries. At least we can infer that from some of the information that we've been given. About a year ago, we were warned that the city's operating budget would be down to $230M, as opposed to the $600M that it had been before Katrina. That must have been an optimistic projection, because at the end of the "100 days" we were told that the city was operating on a quarter of its pre-Katrina budget. It wasn't just Nagin and Couhig who said that, a Times Picayune editorial even opined that:
Mayor Nagin and his team should be recognized for some of the deeds listed Tuesday. Administrators have kept finances afloat despite working with only a quarter of the city's pre-Katrina budget.

Now we're told that the city spends $50M annually on firefighters' salaries, go figure.

It's time to get real, numbers do have meaning. I can't believe that nobody else was curious about that 25% figure. I think that I've figured out the ridiculous way Nagin or Couhig or Hatfield came up with it. In 2004, the city had an operating budget of $460 million Now the budget's down to $324 million. But 50% of that budget was "under-funded." I can only assume that "under-funded" means borrowed. Still half of $324M is more than a quarter of $460M. But the city's budget was almost $550M when Nagin took office*. I suppose you can round 550 to 600 and 160 to 150. So if you don't count borrowed money as spent money and do a lot of rounding, it makes perfect sense.

*That $550M budget was the highest that turned up when I briefly used the google. A more thorough search might have found a higher figure. It's irrelevant, N.O. never had a $1.3B operating budget.

Update: Rereading this and my earlier post on the subject, I see that I failed to mention that that Dr. Hatfield maintains that the city's proposed 10% pay raise for firefighters would cost $2.1M a year. Yet we're told that the city spends $50M on firefighters' salaries.

Friday, October 27, 2006

Mark Major for Mayor?

Just kidding, but at least it only takes the RTA four months to correct a mistake. Back in June, the RTA decided paper over a political conflict by increasing upper level pay:
Under the plan, General Manager Bill Deville would move into a new position: director of capital recovery. Deville would be replaced by Mark Major, the RTA’s deputy general manager for finance and administration.

Reiss said he will recommend that Deville retain his $125,000 salary and that Major’s $100,000 salary increase by $25,000.

Deville has come under fire in recent months from several RTA commissioners...

This despite the fact that RTA was broke and forced to layoff most of it workforce.

So why would I even joke about making the head of the RTA mayor? Like I said, it only took the RTA four months to correct a mistake:
RTA fires demoted top manager
By Frank Donze

Bill Deville, the Regional Transit Authority's former general manager, has been fired four months after he was demoted amid criticism from RTA board members for signing contracts without their approval, RTA officials confirmed Thursday.

Asked Thursday if anyone has been named to fill Deville's job, Major said, "The position no longer exists."

Actually, the move probably had more to do with politics than a desire to economize. The new chairman of the RTA is a Nagin pal and BNOB board member, so I'm sure they know all about the exploding pie. But it was nice to think that at least one branch of local government was behaving responsibly. Also, Frank Donze says that it was Jimmy Reiss' plan to pad the payroll at the top while laying off half the workforce. The city paid consultants at least $1.8M for that expert advice.

Verbs blush and run around naked.

There really should be a Bulwer-Lytton contest for book jacket or review writing:
“Real poets never vanish, their language is reborn to thrill us ‘in the wild zone’. Direct, intimate, magical, ‘honey washed’, Landis Everson’s words ‘purr’ before us. Verbs blush and run around naked. His skills are astutely dressed up, bones become poems. Which are constant and fulfilling, honestly shining in the unity time.” —Joanne Kyger

I know the book's been well received and I liked the poems that I found online. For that matter, Joanne Kyger's a respected poet and writer in her own right. But, "verbs blush and run around naked?"

Thursday, October 26, 2006

I Was Being Sarcastic

I don't think that the city's firefighters are greedy bastards. I don't know how any city employees are paid relative to their counterparts in other cities. I know that most were underpaid prior to Katrina, but even that was exaggerated. Now that so many lower level employees have been laid off, I'm really curious. Salary figures for police officers and firefighters can be even more misleading, because of state supplemental pay. To my knowledge, only police officers, firefighters and teachers receive it and I assume that at least some other states have something similar. Misleading comparisons can easily be made if state pay is included for one city and not the comparison city.

When the issue of pay raises first came up, the city's estimated costs of $3.1M for the remainder of this year and $11M for next year immediately struck me as "off." When Bruce Eggler covered the issue, he didn't bother with high school math, he just pointed out that the mayor ignored half of the equation. So I was little disappointed that Frank Donze took such a suspicious figure at face value. But this weekend, I'll just redo the math, sort through the facts and point why everybody should be disturbed by the council's handling of the matter. Then I'll drop the subject.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Greedy Bastards

The average firefighter in New Orleans makes over $75,000 per year, and the union has the nerve to demand a pay raise. I'm not making that up, the city is down to about 650 firefighters (the number may be smaller), and The Picayune's Frank Donze tells us that:
Those raises would add at least $10 million to the $50 million the city now spends annually on firefighter salaries. The Nagin administration wants to settle that matter before the city grants any department-wide raises.

Do the math. I've long thought that there's the Frank Donze who drinks the Kool-Aid during the week and the insightful Frank Donze who usually writes the Saturday New Orleans Politics column. It seems that the Kool-Aid drinker has been listening the doctor of education uncritically.

I know, it could have been an excusable mistake; total payroll costs for a department would be higher than the combined salaries of a department. I've heard that the total payroll cost of an employee is about twice his salary (I've found multiplier estimates ranging from 1.35 to 2.5), but I don't know what it usually averages. Like the mayor's CAO I'm no management expert. Still that $50M figure seemed suspiciously high. As a matter of fact, as far as I ca tell, total expenditures for the fire department went from $50M in the 2005 budget to $40M in the 2006 budget. Google city of new orleans operating budget and click on the powerpoint link about three from the top.

I had hoped to have finished up on the topic by now, but I had computer problems last night and blogger was down earlier. I don't expect most people to care about the pay raise issue as much as I do, but everyone should care about the way it's been handled. If the mayor continually throws out numbers that a moment's thought should tell you won't stand a second glance, somebody should call him on it. The Times Picayune has started doing a much better job of it, but the city council seems to really believe that the mayor knows how to run the city like a business. He's running it like a education department, a dysfunctional education department at that. If they ignore the obvious questions on any issue, it doesn't give me any confidence in their ability to handle the really important issues.

Sunday, October 22, 2006

Why is Veronica White Getting a Pay Raise?

Why does she even have her job? I'm not saying that she should be fired because of the expensive contracts that the sanitation department recently signed. That would have been Nagin's decision, and if I were going to fire her for contract decisions, I can think of worse.

For reasons having nothing to do with Ms. White's job performance, I have to wonder why the city feels the need keep a six-figure (probably in that range*) sanitation director, at all. I certainly can't think of any reason to give a pay raise to the head of a phantom department:
White conceded that the city remains dirtier than the Nagin administration believes acceptable, a predictable problem because the storm wiped out much of her office's vehicle fleet, halved her budget and forced her to lay off all but 14 of her 89 workers.

She promised a change, but that change is to be expected when private contracts are awarded. So you have to wonder what the director of sanitation does. The city already has a mayor and CAO to negotiate such contracts and I have no doubt that it will soon have an inspector general to say that the contracts are honest, so what does Ms. White do? I'm sure that at least a couple of the 14 remaining staffers have supervisory, why not just put that small staff under the head of the department of public works? An additional 14 people wouldn't turn a department that had gone from having 340 employees to 86 employees into a bloated bureaucracy.

Personally, I don't think any pay raises outside of the police and fire departments can be justified at this point in time. I could possibly be convinced if the administration and the SEIU gave real information rather than anecdotal sob stories, but I'll finish up on that in another post. However, if the city is going to grant across-the-board raises, there's a better way to pay for them than using federal loans. You might recall Nagin's plan to raise pay during his first term:
Nagin's vision, articulated in his campaign and during his first 60 days in office, has been to raise the pay of top appointees first, financing the increases by shrinking the overall size of the City Hall work force. The "all-star team" he creates will eventually improve the city's financial position, Nagin has said, making across-the-board raises possible.

We all saw what an "all-star" team he created. But, at the end of his first term, the city shrunk its overall work force to a much greater degree than it eliminated supervisory positions. Now it's time to get rid of some dead weight at the top to improve the city's financial position, making across-the-board raises possible.

As the Picayune said Sunday:
New Orleans has tremendous needs -- from curbing crime to patching city streets to handling the myriad permits and paperwork for rebuilding. And the city's recovery will depend on how well its scant resources are used to meet those needs.

Sounds like what I've been saying for months.

*Her salary is listed at $47,500, but as the Picayune notes, the listed salaries for the city's department heads tend to be less than half of the actual salaries. Well, that's the case where the actual salaries are known. Am I the only person who's appalled that the city council voted on the pay raises without asking some obvious questions?

Saturday, October 21, 2006

Benny the Chin?

Billboard Ben must really be worried about that federal investigation, because the Picayune reports that he's putting on a crazy act that might have actually worked for Vincent Gigante:
New Orleans Sewerage & Water Board members leapfrogged Wednesday among a bevy of critical issues, from rebuilding sewer lift stations to selling hundreds of flood-damaged public vehicles for scrap, to the agency's long-running negotiations with the Federal Emergency Management Agency over reimbursement for infrastructure repairs.

And though it wasn't on the agenda, veteran board member Ben Edwards jumped into the mix with an item of his own: hanging pictures.

Saying he recently had toured government offices in other towns, Edwards told Mayor Ray Nagin, who is board president, that "they have pictures of the mayor in all the buildings that you go into." He advised New Orleans do the same.

. . . . . . .

TRAVELING PREACHER: In pushing for Nagin's portrait, Edwards said he had just returned from visiting "six cities in the past seven days."

But when pressed after the meeting, he refused to say exactly where his journey took him or what business, if any, he undertook at public buildings in a half-dozen towns outside New Orleans.

I suppose that it might have been simple sycophancy. After all, Edwards' term has expired and the mayor has expressed a desire to "refresh" the city's municipal boards, but to think that Nagin was serious, really would be crazy.

The link for "refresh" really is worth reading. Even Library Journal has gone from writing positive stories about supporting the city's recovery to editorializing against the mayor, calling him "shortsighted" and "intransigent." What happened to the "visionary" that Clancy praised?

New Orleans City Business is also getting into the crazy act, but in a way that's just crazy enough to be scary:

Nod to Jefferson could signal Nagin's run for Congress

by Mark Singletary
Under the peculiar circumstances Congress operates under, it is likely an indicted Jefferson can remain the unconvicted Jefferson if he accepts a deal to resign from Congress.

If that happens, a special election will likely be held in late spring 2007 to replace him.

Enter congressional candidate Nagin with a big pile of money, mostly raised somewhere other than in Louisiana, to fund his campaign for Louisiana's 2nd Congressional District.
Could the mayor walk away from his job with three years left to serve with the city still trying to recover? Two sets of circumstances could dictate such a stroll.

The first instance is the city's recovery starts going well. In that case, the mayor would be as popular as he was before the storm and electable.

The second scenario is the city remains a complete mess. Road Home problems and out-of-control crime remain too much for the mayor to handle.

In that case, it makes sense for Nagin to distance himself from the governor, the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the City Council and blame our problems on everyone else. He convinces himself and his supporters the best way he can help us is by going to Washington and having a national voice.

Friday, October 20, 2006

Misleading Job Classifications

From Bruce Eggler's column in today's Times Picayune article about city pay raises:
A survey comparing local workers' pay with that of employees of other Southern cities found that in most cases, "New Orleans city workers earn far below the regional average, with some job classifications paying as low as 48 percent below the average," she said.

I'm not arguing that New Orleans city employees are overpaid, because except for the "all star team" at the top, they're not. It's certainly not a major part of my argument against across the board raises, but I'm a little tired of statements like that being made without any context. I'd bet that New Orleans has, on average, the highest paid classified municipal employees in the region. It probably did before Katrina, it almost certainly does since the layoffs.

To illustrate, I'll give a partial job listing from the Shreveport Public Library:
Library Technician
SUMMARY: Under general supervision, this individual is responsible for
a variety of public service and technical duties in various phases of
library operations, can function with occasional monitoring of work
progress and work quality by immediate supervisor and performs related
work as required.

High school diploma or equivalent, plus 30 semester hours of
successful college course work. [Three or more years of paid,
full-time, directly related (e.g. service or retail) experience may
substitute for the college requirement.]

Some knowledge of: (1) standard library principles, practices and
procedures; (2) electronic and printed materials, resources and databases.

Ability to: (1) make decisions based on established policies as well
as common sense; (2) use resourcefulness, tact and courtesy in dealing
with library patrons; (3) relate and communicate effectively with
other employees and the public; (4) understand and carry out complex
oral and written instructions; (5) type accurately and efficiently and
use a computer.


* Provides reference/readers' advisory assistance; assists patrons
in the selection of materials and the use of the other library
facilities and services; answers routine questions; takes interlibrary
loan requests.
* Charges, discharges and renews books and other library
materials; assesses and collects fines; registers new patrons and
updates registration records.
* Assists public with various computer applications.
* Shelves books; straightens books on shelves; reads shelves for
proper order of books; searches for lost books and materials.
* Performs other necessary duties as required.

Tuesday – Wednesday: 11:30 a.m. - 8:00 p.m.
Thursday – Saturday: 9:00 a.m. – 6:00 p.m.

Tuesday – Wednesday: 10:30 a.m. – 7:00 p.m.
Thursday – Saturday: 9:00 a.m. – 6:00 p.m.

$1594/month + benefits

That job listing could be for almost any university or public library system in the state. But it couldn't be for the New Orleans Public Library--the NOPL doesn't have library technicians. A similar listing for the New Orleans Public Library (pre-Katrina) would have been for a library associate, would have required a college, paid almost three thousand a year more, had a work schedule that was five hours a week shorter and had all the same job duties. Well, it wouldn't have said anything about shelving books, many associates thought that was beneath their dignity. Most library systems have librarians (with an MLS) and "support staff"--associates, technicians, assistants or aides and pages (or student workers).

In New Orleans, the library system is composed almost entirely of librarians and associates, with a few (mostly part time) pages whose primary duties involve shelving books. Associates in New Orleans tend to get paid less than associates elsewhere, but most of the associates would be technicians or, the even less well-paid, assistants. Associates in other systems tend to have far greater responsibilities--my immediate supervisor in a university library is an associate; she makes slightly more than I did as a New Orleans Public Library associate, but she has far greater responsibilities. If an army calls all of its privates "sergeants", it's going to have low paid sergeants.

Sorry to keep using my old department, but as the Picayune article made clear, it's almost impossible to get accurate information about employment and payroll for city government. At least in the library, the majority of employees start at a higher positions than in other cities. Again, this isn't a major point; it has nothing to do with cost of living, merit or longevity raises that employees are eligible for in other cities. But the city and the SEIU do keep making a major point based on a somewhat misleading statistic. It seems to me that if the average pay were still that low, the city and the SEIU would release hard data, not anecdotes about the relatively few remaining poorly paid employees.

For what it's worth, the local chapter of the SEIU does share an address and some leadership with the local chapter of ACORN. Of course, it may honestly believe that across the board pay raises are more important than rehiring.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

There is a Connection There

But I didn't say anything about causality

I. Rent Compression

Wage compression--a narrowing wage gap between lowest and highest paid employees in a firm or economic sector--is a commonly used economic term, but I don't believe that I've ever heard the term rent compression. However, that's the term that came to mind after reading the front page article about rising rents in Sunday's Picayune. I won't go into all the reasons why people still discuss the problem of wage compression in an era of rising CEO compensation, or why anybody would consider rising pay at the bottom a problem, but there are plausible arguments both ways. The most plausible would be in hi-tech fields, outsourcing has lowered the ceiling for all but the very top executives, limited opportunities are causing fewer to study engineering or computer science, etc. That's the argument.

The huge increase in rents at the lower end and middle of the market is one of the biggest problems facing the city right now, but I'm interested in the stagnation at the top of the market. I suppose that if the market is flat for luxury apartments, it would explain how, despite the anecdotal evidence, advertised rents (that's rents for newly available apartments) have only increased by 70%. More importantly, it's a reflection of a very real problem--the city's declining professional class. It's absurd to plan on a sustained recovery starting any time soon while that's still the case. It's also raises questions about the various luxury apartment and condo developments that have been proposed.

I don't think anybody in the city is merely "interested" in the increase in rents at the lower end of the market, it's too complicated and too emotional a subject for me to go into here. You can blame the increased value of section 8 vouchers, the influx of out-of-town construction crews, greedy landlords, increased insurance costs, whatever.

II. I Thought it was Just a Lame Excuse

Whenever I hear landlords say that they've raised there rents because of the city's somewhat surreptitious increase in property taxes, I can't help but think of what the Times Picayune told us in May:
Together, the city and School Board rate hikes mean homeowners whose assessments have remained steady can expect to see an increase of about 9 percent in their total property tax bill this year.

However, most homeowners have seen their property assessments reduced since Hurricane Katrina, meaning they will pay less.

So, who could believe landlords who claim:
Before Katrina, I went into heavy debt renovating three Uptown properties, and I barely paid the bills with rental income. Since Katrina, the combined New Orleans property taxes on the properties increased from around $3,000 per year to approximately $11,000 per year.

This is obviously a case of greedy city officials, not greedy landlords.

If you did not flood, you will certainly pay the price. Am I supposed to keep the rents low and go bankrupt so the city or bank can own my property?

Actually, unless each property has only one unit and each increase has been below $250/month, there would seem to some element of rationalization there. Still, he raises a valid point. At any rate, similar points were raised by Harry Anderson:
The city tried to more than double their $17,000-a-year property taxes. A lawyer had the amount reduced, but “that just meant that the lawyer got the money instead of the city,” Mr. Anderson said.

The Louisiana Weekly expressed concerns before the tax was increased:
Such a catastrophic increase in taxes, at this time, would have sent many thousands of New Orleanians into a bankruptcy that would cost them their homes-and flung even more in selling their residences and leaving the state. The effects on the few small businesses still eking out an existence in the City would be in our estimation, disastrous.

(Any roll up of millage rates)--should only occur if the public approves them in a tax election. Currently, to raise taxes requires a public vote; that should be true in all cases including setting the level of the milliage rate. Stealth tax increases, such a milliage roll ups, should be no exception, or the provisions of the City Charter giving the electorate the final word on tax increases are meaningless.

Either we live in city of whining exaggeraters, or the Times Picayune got snowed. It wouldn't be the only time that the city deliberately gave misleading cost estimates (For more on the tax increases scroll down to the part about millages). Whatever the case, we can rest assured that the money's being well spent. As the city's website states:
The City Council adopted the final millage rates earlier this month, and reassessments have now been completed. These taxes will generate the revenue necessary to continue providing needed City services.

III. City's garbage pickup costs to jump
The cost of collecting household trash in New Orleans will nearly triple starting Jan. 2 under a pair of contracts worth $26.8 million awarded last month by Mayor Ray Nagin, who touts the deals as a major step toward alleviating one of residents' top quality-of-life concerns.

The massive seven-year agreements -- to be inked with Richard's Disposal and Metro Disposal -- represent only a portion of the total cost of ridding the city of everyday waste, however. The contracts do not include trash cleanup in the French Quarter and Central Business District or the cost of dumping waste at a Jefferson Parish landfill. They are also certain to increase in price as more residents return, according to bid documents made public by Nagin only after the deals were announced.

As a result, the total price tag is likely tens of millions of dollars higher than city records show.

Despite the huge cost increases, the city does not plan to raise the $12 monthly garbage fee paid by residents. Instead, to cover the increased cost over the current contract with Waste Management, which currently collects garbage citywide once a week for $9.4 million annually, officials said they will tap the city's general operating budget and a low-interest federal loan secured after Hurricane Katrina.

It's not the first time that the city only stated part of the cost of a project. It's not the first time the city understated the cost of this project:
Under the deals with Richard's and Metro, which each cover roughly half the city's 100,000 households with twice-weekly pickup -- excluding the French Quarter and CBD -- Richard's will earn $16.9 million, and Metro will earn $9.9 million per year. During his announcement of the contracts, Nagin said the two contracts were valued at a total of about $20 million.

The article mentions many more costs that aren't factored into the new contracts, including emptying (cleaning and servicing) 1000 (bombproof) garbage cans, but that's no problem:
To bridge the financial gap, Nagin said the city will dip into its own coffers to cover the added cost. That subsidy is likely to come from the general fund, which finances the entire sanitation budget, White said.

Finance Director Reginald Zeno said in an e-mail message last week that the city also will tap, on a "limited" basis, a $120 million Community Disaster Loan that it secured to finance operations in the face of a revenue shortfall after Katrina.

Even debris cleanup is big business. Like I said before:
Considering the city's abandoned car and general garbage disposal situation and the mayor's insinuations about taking donations from individuals who might want to profit from the city, it seems like the mayor gets a lot of Benjamins from companies in the disposal, scrap metal or landfill business.

My prediction on the third contract: either TSG, or some formed newly-formed company like MCCI gets it. Obvious prediction on the first two, the costly stipulations that scared away other potential bidders will be quietly removed.

Non-New Orleans Question

Have any Democrats even asked the Republicans to define victory in Iraq? Really, I haven't been following the national campaigns. Would anybody really want to defend the White House definition?

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

No Apologies

If anybody was offended by an earlier post of mine, don't expect a retraction. On the first part, I won't apologize for saying what hundreds of people had to have felt. The city spends millions of dollars increasing its payroll, but nobody asks whether it would be better to spend it bringing back laid off workers. It wasn't a fairness or compassion issue, by any stretch of the imagination. If it were, the matter would have been discussed. I've meant to add to that since I posted it, but haven't been able to separate the personal feelings from the political observations. I'll probably break into two, I won't expect anybody to be swayed by the personal post, but I should disclose any biases. Remember, layoff and rehiring decisions were not made on the basis of job rank, or past evaluations or seniority. At least in my department, supervisors each got to pick a certain number of staff members, regardless of what level of staff turnover they had prior to Katrina or what rate of return they had after. I can't imagine that there are many former employees who didn't feel that borrowing money to increase pay rather than bring back people was rubbing salt in a wound. That belongs in the personal post. But when my own councilman doesn't bother to answer an email that expresses both my anger as a former employee and my concerns as a resident, I'm not going to apologize for expressing the feelings of hundreds.

I've only expressed "plague on both their houses" sentiments about both the mayor and city council once before. That was last December, and most people thought that I was wrong then--about the mayor. Most people applauded the mayor for standing up to the NIMBYists on the city council or, at most, criticized him for not being forceful enough. It seemed obvious to me that he had, in typical fashion, arrived at a decision without seeking any input and then refused to explain his decision. Only difference,was he didn't quietly back down while insisting that he had never changed his mind that time; there was too much political advantage to be gained from making it an issue (and he did such a good job of helping the people that he was standing up for). When most people were applauding the mayor, I thought he needed to hear the sound of one hand clapping. Sorry for the "told you so," but bear it in mind when I explain why the council's failure to ask questions should be a major source of concern for everybody.

That more political post may be my last post for a while--maybe a few months, maybe just a few days. For a couple of months now, I've been thinking about taking a blogging break for mostly personal reasons. The never-written follow up to an earlier post was going to be it for a while. Whether you agree with me or not about the pay raises (by itself, it's not a matter of great concern), pay attention to my arguments about why the city council's handling of the issue should be a matter of major interest to everybody. Everybody's been complaining about the administration's secrecy about city finances, the budget committee gets the opportunity to grill the mayor's CAO and what do they find out about the mayor's spending plans? Nothing, zero, donut egg. The mayor's mishandling of the FEMA trailer placement issue wasn't the only issue where I was ahead of the curve. Long before yachtgate, I pointed out that whether he broke any laws or not, the mayor had a very public record of shameless cronyism. I was a couple of months ahead of WWL TV in wondering why police presence seemed to reduced by a lot more than 200-300 officers or how much the city was paying for its energy advisers. Right after the election, I even said that we could expect the mayor to continue governing in campaign mode. Not trying to brag, just trying to establish some credibility before I attack the city council.

Actually, I often wonder how many people read the local news stories all the way to the last paragraph and then just look around. I guess if more people did, we'd have a city full of Roddy Pipers.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006


The last paragraph of the previous post wasn't intended to imply collusion between the mayor and Entergy. But Dan Packer served as co-chair of Nagin's first transition team, served on Nagin's BNOB committee and was Nagin's appointment to head the aviation board. Obviously, the mayor has a great deal of trust in the head of Entergy New Orleans. Under the circumstances, one would hope the city council is prepared to be a little more skeptical about Entergy's claims than the mayor might be. To rephrase that, the council should not wait for the mayor to provide leadership on the issue.

Monday, October 16, 2006

Is He Talking About New Orleans?

Bill Clinton:

"There's never been a more secretive, unaccountable administration."

Gordon Russell (of The Times Picayune):
Though The Times-Picayune has filed three public-records requests with City Hall for information about technology contracts, it took more than a month for city officials to produce a response.

The first request was filed more than a month ago, and the law requires a response within three days. On Friday, the Nagin administration said the records are being compiled and "as soon as (they) are available, we will contact you immediately."

When all that became public, Nagin spokeswoman Ceeon Quiett said: "We are concerned with any perception that inappropriate behavior may have occurred. . . . Therefore, be assured that this matter will be handled appropriately."

But she never said what form appropriate handling might take. Pressed for details about, for instance, whether the mayor planned any kind of review of Imagine's contracts, Quiett wouldn't say, instead offering a bafflingly circular explanation: "You can rest assured that any actions we take, we will definitely let you know."

"I'm not saying there is or there isn't any review taking place," Quiett said. "I'm saying that if something happens regarding this story, we will definitely let you know."

In another matter, I found an article that illustrates why the re-appointment of Nagin's business partner (in the real estate business) is a big deal. It's an old article, but I believe the aviation board still owns most of the land. When I mentioned the article in response to Schroeder's comment on a recent post, I should have made it clearer when I shifted from talking about the aviation board to talking about the library board.

Also, I'll probably lose any credibility for mentioning this, but Dan Packer and Ray Nagin seem awfully chummy. Before I hear anything about suggesting something totally outlandish, the Fortune 500 company--Entergy Corp. is an entirely separate entity from Entergy New Orleans, remember?

Sunday, October 15, 2006

The Midterm Elections Could Go Either Way

From the Washington Spectator:
Even though this election could go either way, neither way will benefit the Democrats. Either the Republicans will steal their "re-election" on Election Day, just as they did two years ago, or they will slime their way to "victory" through force and fraud and strident propaganda, as they did after Election Day 2000.

Decided to share this after the print copy crossed my desk Friday. No comment on the issue.

Saturday, October 14, 2006

Working Around A Bad Boss

That's what I thought of when I read today's New Orleans Politics column:
Chapter 1 of the Tania Tetlow story ended with her exit from the New Orleans Library Board after Mayor Ray Nagin told the volunteer board chairwoman her services were no longer required.

Chapter 2 opens with her comeback as the new head of the Library Foundation, a nonprofit group that seeks grants and philanthropic donations for the system and works closely with the library board.

Nagin set off a mild furor several weeks ago when he moved to replace Tetlow, who had established a reputation as the driving force behind the restoration of the city's flood-ravaged library system since Hurricane Katrina.

While the administration praised her for a job well done, Chief Administrative Officer Brenda Hatfield told Tetlow that the mayor wanted to inject the city's boards and commissions with new blood to avoid "entrenchment" by appointees.

Yet two of Tetlow's Library Board colleagues were so sorry to see her go that they each offered to step down if Nagin would agree to name Tetlow to their seat.

Nagin never got back to them.
So after board members welcomed Nagin's hand-picked replacement for Tetlow, musician Irvin Mayfield, they moved quickly to cast their former colleague in another major role -- one that requires no mayoral appointment. The foundation board includes the nine members of the Library Board and three private citizens.

I suppose that the other board members had no choice. It's probably too early to resign in protest, and it might have been construed as a protest against Mayfield rather than a protest against Nagin.

However, you generally work around a bad boss who's sort of a jerk, but otherwise sane. There are times when more drastic actions are called for. At any rate, there's no reason for city council members to think that they need to work around a bad boss. Apparently, something went unreported since we first heard this story:
Tetlow, a Tulane University law professor appointed to a partial term by Mayor Marc Morial in 1999, will be replaced as soon as the City Council approves Nagin's recommended replacement, musician Irvin Mayfield. That vote could come as soon as next week.

That's not the kind of thing that a council normally confronts a mayor over, but the closest this council has come to confronting the mayor over anything, is to send a supplicatory letter. I thought they were co-equals.

I'm embarrassed to admit that I forgot all about Nagin's desire to "refresh" the city's municipal boards in order to "avoid entrenchment," when I commented on Nagin's reappointment of friend, campaign manager and business partner to the aviation board. Can't believe I missed something that obvious.

Update: Though it was about much more,Schroeder has a great post that highlights the lack of leadership:
is that as much as we are all trying to do on a daily basis to bring our city back, nobody (his emphasis) at any level of leadership or representation has a narrative to tell about the future of this city.

I don't mean to "hijack" another blogger's post to prove my much narrower point, but isn't it time that the council stop trying to work around a bad boss and start asserting its equal status?

What About Mayor Bountiful?

In the past, James Gill has written (twice) about wasteful spending by judges, levee boards and assessor's offices. Now, he writes about Governor Bountiful's willingness to spend the state's tobacco settlement. I don't know how many front page stories and editorials the Picayune has run about the poor spending decisions and outright waste on the part of state officials. Yet the Picayune has said little, and Gill has said zero, nada, donut egg about the mayor's willingness to borrow against an expected boom. Why the double standard? During the election, the mayor insisted that one $150M loan was all the state needed, but does anyone doubt that he's planning on taking out two loans? Well, I can think of seven people that prefer not to think about it.

Friday, October 13, 2006

The news media doesn‘t like to cover airplanes that land safely.

Better late than never: I've meant to post about the "Haley Barbour for President" (I mean Katrina anniversary) edition of Scarborough Country for a month and a half now. And somebody needs to post a recent John Maginnis column while it's available on line. For anyone from elsewhere reading, Maginnis is probably the most respected political commentator in the state. I think he leans Republican (I used a harsher term once before); nobody would call him a knee-jerk Blanco defender.

I'm sure that everybody's tired of the manufactured Louisiana/Mississippi rivalry, but the Aug. 29th airing of Scarborough Country
was particularly galling. Scarborough gave Barbour the chance to be the gloating coach of the winning team:
BARBOUR: Our people didn‘t look for somebody to blame. They weren‘t whining. Mississippi‘s not into victimhood. We got hit by the worst natural disaster of our history and got knocked flat. But our people that day got up, they hitched up their britches and went to work. They went to work helping themselves and helping their neighbors. And that‘s the way it‘s been every since, and that spirit is all the difference in the world. They‘re the kind of people that are just not going to quit.

SCARBOROUGH: Anybody that knows about hurricanes knows this was ground zero for Hurricane Katrina. Why were you forgotten?

BARBOUR: We bore the brunt of the storm, you‘re right. I‘ll tell you why we were forgotten. The news media doesn‘t like to cover airplanes that land safely. You know, they want to go where somebody is complaining and whining and saying, Give me something. People down here were saying, Let me help my neighbor.

On the surface, there's nothing wrong with the governor of Mississippi praising the people of Mississippi, but this goes beyond the usual "us vs. them" diversion. I normally think that the term "code speech" is overused, but Mississippi's Gulf Coast is overwhelming white--the three coastal counties vary between 73% and 90% white-- and New Orleans is mostly black. I think Barbour knows exactly what he's doing when he says that they work and help themselves in Mississippi. He doesn't need to say what kind of people whine and complain and say, "give me something."

Barbour didn't need to praise himself, the "Pullitzer Prize winning" editor of the Mississippi Sun Herald was on hand to do that:
(Stan Tiner of the Sun Herald)But I also want to pay homage to the leadership. I think books will be written for many years about leadership that was characterized by people like Governor Barbour because we have a lot of small communities along this coast, and each one of them, as Professor Brinkley indicated, did wonderful jobs of standing up in their place and doing what they could. But it required leadership at a high level to come in and bring the resources together and help them be put into place for everybody.

That was the second segment (scroll past the Brian Williams segment), everybody (Barbour, Tiner, Scarborough and Douglas Brinkley) on it was horrendous.

In a later segment, we even found out that Haley Barbour was responsible for the concept of the Katrina Cottage:
Governor Haley Barbour asked architects to come up with an alternative. The result: Marianne Cusato‘s Katrina cottage.

Not a total fabrication, BTW. Just one hell of an exaggeration.

They left out the part about Barbour's lobbying firm representing corporations that sue to take business from Mississippi companies.

Rather than go into detail, I'll just copy that John Maginnis column:

Road home no faster next door
Wednesday, October 04, 2006
John Maginnis

The snail's pace of the post-hurricane housing grant program is provoking outrage among state politicians. Homeowners who applied in April have heard nothing back. The Legislature complains about being shut out of the planning process, while ethics questions swirl around some lawmakers' business dealings with the program. It is being called the governor's "albatross."

And -- surprise, surprise -- it's not in Louisiana.

Though Mississippi received full federal funding for its housing grant program six months earlier than did Louisiana, bureaucratic snags have caused only 75 of 17,000 applicants to receive checks as of Sept. 14, according to the Mississippi Development Authority. "That's outrageous," U.S. Sen. Trent Lott, R-Miss., said. "It baffles me."

Next door, the Louisiana Road Home plan has closed on 11 buyouts and made 190 offers to homeowners for rebuilding grants, out of an estimated 120,000 eligible. But its contractor only began interviewing applicants in August, which was the deadline Mississippi officials had set -- and blown -- for completing that program.

According to news accounts, Mississippi's plan, touted as less complicated and more homeowner-friendly than Louisiana's, is bogged down dealing with hundreds of mortgage companies that are raising fraud alarms about grants of up to $150,000 not being used to pay off mortgages or to rebuild houses. Feeling the heat is Gov. Haley Barbour, who has expressed his own frustration with the slow pace of the program he created.

The real performance of the two states' programs clashes with the popular political mythology.

That holds that Mississippi's can-do governor, having taken care of business in Washington, moved quickly -- even bypassing the Legislature -- to establish a simplified, streamlined grants program to get checks into the hands of individuals, who were free to use the money as they pleased once they paid off their mortgages.

By contrast, Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco, who had to pester the Bush administration for more money, set up a more complicated, bureaucratic process that holds award money in escrow accounts until it is disbursed for rebuilding. Those who sell their homes to the state but do not buy or build in Louisiana are penalized 40 percent.

The Mississippi plan was supposed to cut through the red tape and government-imposed requirements that would bind homeowners in Louisiana.

But the Mississippi program could have used a bit more tape. It lacks the legal authority to require that grants be used to pay off home loans. Though checks in Mississippi are written jointly to homeowners and mortgage companies, the firms cannot prevent individuals from cashing their checks and using the money for something else.

Louisiana's Road Home program was criticized for giving mortgage lenders more control over rebuilding grants so as to ensure that is what they are used for. Louisiana Recovery Authority Director Andy Kopplin said, "We weren't looking to the road to the casino, we're looking to the road home."

The extra time Louisiana spent waiting for all its federal funds allowed it to work out memorandums of understanding with financial institutions. Louisiana Bankers Association president Robert Taylor observed, "No doubt the contractor the state hired looked at Mississippi and took steps not to repeat what they had done."

On the ethics front, Louisiana had elected officials who cashed in on FEMA contracts, but no conflict-of-interest questions have been raised about the Road Home program (yet). Not so in Mississippi, where a congressman is calling for an ethics investigation of three state legislators who have contracts with the program to provide legal services on real estate closings.

In all likelihood, Mississippi will fix its program's flaws and pay out its awards before does Louisiana, which has seven times the caseload. That's because Louisiana's plan extends eligibility to homeowners in the flood plain who did not have flood insurance, a group that Mississippi excludes. The Mississippi Legislature has since passed a compensation plan covering more homeowners, but it has no funding for it.

Mississippi's plan puts the homeowner first, while Louisiana tries to balance the interests of the individual and the community. One can debate the two guiding principles, but, when it comes to comparing the execution, while Louisiana still has much to do, Mississippi has much to redo.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

Finally, an Answer

Well, sorta. For weeks I've been wondering how Entergy New Orleans' damage claims have gone from $718M down to $592M. Since $320M of the earlier $718M was for lost revenue and $398M was for physical damage, I had the feeling that new number was actually a higher estimate. Finally, we get some information that makes everything...something:
Of Entergy's $592 million request, $355 million is to repair the gas system alone...

Entergy needs $271 million for work it's already completed to restore the electric and gas system -- which the $200 million LRA money will likely directly offset. The company is also asking for $194 million for unrecovered fixed costs, or costs that it won't be able to pay for with a reduced customer base, and $22 million for customer accounts that it had to write off following Hurricane Katrina. The total amount the company is seeking surpasses $842 million, but Entergy is banking on receiving $250 million in insurance proceeds, bringing the total request to $592 million.

Sounds like they've shuffled some numbers and come up with a new term for lost revenue. Maybe the city should get rid of some lawyers and bring in some accountants.

On a personal note, the fact that my rent includes utilities makes the matter more worrisome than it otherwise would be. A single guy can cut back on usage pretty easily,especially in the Summer. If the rent goes up, I might not be able to stay in town to vote against the seven dwarves any chance that I get. Anyone that would dismiss my upcoming post about the city pay raises as a purely personal, angry rant should consider a few facts. The mayor has been unduly secretive about city finances. He apparently proposed the across the board pay raise to prove a point to the firefighters' union. The cost estimates were based on figures that were, at best, incomplete. The City Council budget Committee discussed the issue with the mayor's CAO for all of ninety minutes. The full City Council passed it unanimously, without discussion. Apparently, nobody on the council took the opportunity to question the mayor more closely about the city's finances. And the council has yet to see the mayor's proposed 2007 budget. Even if I supported the raises, even if I benefited from the raises, that would worry me.

Good Advice is Good Advice

I don't think anyone in New Orleans wants to take advice from people in Charleston, but reading some other blogs (and don't forget), brings to mind some advice that we heard a year ago.

From the executive director of the Historic Charleston Foundation:
But Patty brings us good news as well: most of the city's National Register historic districts still stand. Though damaged, much of the historic fabric of these centuries-old buildings survives and is salvageable. Salvageable, that is, at least from the storm. Now the even greater threat is: can it be saved from redevelopers' and clean-up crews' bulldozers?

Or from a member of the city's Board of Architectural Review:
"We decided that in the long run, the best thing to do was to do it right," he said.

And they did. They insisted that a metal roof be replaced by a metal roof, that a facade maintain its integrity and that nothing that could be fixed would be torn down.

"We have buildings all over town right now that owners wanted to tear down," Rosenblum said. "If you say 'no' enough, eventually somebody comes along and has a use for it and saves it.

"If the building has good bones, fix it. If you start ripping things down, you're gong to lose the city."

Losing the city is what Rosenblum fears for New Orleans. A graduate of Tulane University, he has a passion for the place and its architectural heritage.

"People need to know you can repair New Orleans," he said. "You can put it back. And when you plan it, you've got to do a good job. A good New Orleans job -- not a San Diego job or a St. Louis job.

"What we don't want is another city that looks like another city. We all want New Orleans to look like -- and be like -- New Orleans."

Of course, in addition to less damage, Charleston had one major advantage over New Orleans:
"I couldn't believe it, how helpful they were. You always hear horror stories. But in Charleston, the insurance companies came in and did what they were supposed to do: write checks."

Things changed between 1989 and 2005.

Even though it's a site about demolition by neglect rather than demolition by bulldozer, you can't discuss the subject without mentioning Squandered Heritage.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

About Those Loans

I hadn't planned on writing about that Gambit paragraph, but I kept coming across BayouBias while looking for information about the mayor's original statements about the city's loan package. As I recall it, in one of the debates Landrieu said that the BGR thought that the city would need to borrow $250M, but Nagin insisted that the city would only need to borrow $150M. However, I question my memory because I also remember the mayor saying that he was right and that the BGR didn't know what conditions the city's finances were in. However, the city's most informed reporters seem to think that the BGR had access to the city's finances. I couldn't find anything to let me know whether my memory was faulty or the city's top reporters merely inattentive, but the Picayune did report that Nagin insisted that the $150M loan was all the city would need.

Nobody is saying that the city plans to use both the second (approval pending) $120M federal loan and the $150M loan, in fact we're told that the city will use the private loan if the federal loan falls through, however the city seems to be banking on both. I bring this up because I believe that the mayor's willful neglect of and contradictory statements about the city's finances are as important as any corrupt dealings. Actually, the two go together, but it's easier to show the former than the latter.

If you ignore the mayor's efforts to have his pie and eat it too on financial matters because you're hoping to catch him breaking the law, you're barking up the wrong tree. Well, you're fighting with one hand tied behind your back when you should be bending over backwards to put your shoulder to the wheel, because the mayor's counting our chickens before they're hatched.

That last sentence was largely plagiarized, anybody know where from? More seriously, Morial cronies are only just getting convicted, years after doing their damage. Since a cavalier attitude towards the city finances goes hand-in-hand with cronyism, both need to be questioned. That's why the lead editorial in yesterday's Picayune was a step in the right direction. There was something disturbing about the second editorial, but tomorrow is another day.

Remember That Gambit Article About Blogs?

The article that only mentioned conservative bloggers. Not only were all the blogs in the article conservative, some of them were blogs that might be said to be for sale to the highest bidder. So, I was little surprised by something in this week's Gambit:
Francis' attacks were initially confined to political blogs that hold themselves out as independent or "news" blogs, but which actually are for sale to the highest bidder. If you buy the services of the blogger, you get yourself pumped up and your opponent smeared regularly -- sometimes with emails to the legitimate press thrown in for good measure as "news alerts" and the like. (Not all blogs do this, only some.)

Clancy was good enough to make that parenthetical note, but I couldn't help but remember some (not all) of the blogs that his newspaper covered last month:
In Louisiana, the now-defunct DeductBox.com is credited with starting it all in the late 90s, but the tradition is being carried on by many, such as LaPoliticalNews.Blogspot.com, BayouBuzz.com and PoliticsLa.com. Even independent journalist John Maginnis, known nationally for his political reporting, has moved some of his writings online, as has former Insurance Commissioner Jim Brown. Emily Metzgar, a columnist for The Shreveport Times, has also been taken in by the kooks because she now has her own blog.

That followed several paragraphs about C.B. Forgotston (whose ethics I wouldn't question) and the Dead Pelican. That does remind me of something that a little-read local blogger who doesn't accept advertising Benjamins (yeah, so he doesn't get offered them either) wrote back in March:
It is interesting that somebody so interested in the appearance of impropriety in a political campaign would be so unconcerned about the appearance of journalistic impropriety on his own web site. Mind you, I'm not suggesting anything untoward, it just seems oddly curious that the two ads on Rogers' website this weekend are for Mike Francis and Geaux Web. I seriously doubt that there's any quid pro quo involved, but Rogers does seem to have a strong interest in appearances.

I don't know if DuBos was referring to BayouBias, but I do know that, during the election, Steve Sabludowsky certainly helped lead the "backlash against the guy who wrote politics (sic) commentary at the wrong time--Douglas Brinkley, a historian."

Actually, I don't believe that a guy's blog should be held to the same grammatical standards as his "scholarly" writings. However, some of the disinformation in the post containing that quote is disturbing:

He beat a political machine on Saturday night in one hard-fought but clean New Orleans election campaign Who really had the machine?

When others were talking bankruptcy, he talked with banks and provided enough details the day of the election to make voters believe he could pull it off. He waited until the day of the election, because the terms weren't favorable.

Or as Sabludowsky said in a later post:
After the WWL debate, Nagin gave further details to me about the priorities of various lending institutions including a French bank.

On election eve at midnight, Nagin released even more details about the pending loan including the names of the banks involved.

Sunday, October 08, 2006

"Billboard Ben" or "Benny Deep Pockets"?

I like "Billboard Ben" better. What had been been a minor cold really hit me yesterday afternoon so I couldn't do anything last night. After the Saints game, I shouldn't be doing anything else today, but I can't ignore a great Gordon Russell article in yesterday's paper. I somehow missed it yesterday, but the article covers everything from Billboard Ben to Yachtgate to the city budget.

On Billboard Ben:
One of the big mysteries of the 2006 mayoral campaign -- precisely how much money 9th Ward minister and longtime Sewerage & Water Board member Benjamin Edwards Sr. poured into Mayor Ray Nagin's victory, and where it all came from -- has been solved.

Sort of.

Edwards, pastor of Third Shiloh Missionary Baptist Church, quietly filed paperwork not long after the election indicating that he spent $269,250 in support of Nagin -- or about 13 percent of what the Nagin campaign spent by itself.

Hate to nitpick but that last sentence should end: "what the Nagin campaign claims to have spent by itself."

I'll defer to Dambala and others on the Yachtgate part, but it's good to read that:
Though The Times-Picayune has filed three public-records requests with City Hall for information about technology contracts, it took more than a month for city officials to produce a response.

Sadly, the following paragraph is not at all surprising:
The first request was filed more than a month ago, and the law requires a response within three days. On Friday, the Nagin administration said the records are being compiled and "as soon as (they) are available, we will contact you immediately."

Glad that the Picayune is asking questions, now I wonder when the seven dwarves (seven spineless solons?) will stop squabbling and start asking some questions. Russell's article ends with:
With the city's finances still in post-Katrina shambles, Nagin plans to wait until the last possible moment to submit his 2007 budget proposals to the council.

The City Charter provides that he must present his budget by Nov. 1, and that's when he will do it, during a special council meeting at 10 a.m.

The council then will begin hearings on the budget Nov. 9, with an eye toward adopting it by the charter-mandated deadline of Dec. 1.

It's unbelievable that, in the absence of a detailed budget, the city council will even consider the mayor's spending proposals without asking some obvious questions.

I'm positive that the administration's estimates of the cost of the recently approved pay increases were based on the current sizes of the police and fire departments. By my figuring, the cost of the pay increases would only run about a million a year more if both were brought to their pre-Katrina sizes. But it does make me wonder what size police and fire departments the mayor is budgeting for. I've seen no sign that anybody, on the council or in the press, is asking that kind of question.

Friday, October 06, 2006

The Slap in the Face

Fuck New Orleans. A plague on all their houses:
By a separate 5-0 vote, the council gave final approval to the 10 percent raise for all other city workers

Note to the council person who answered my email: your idea about leaving out employees who make over a certain amount is a good one, but it doesn't go far enough. I was also uncertain about my math, but when I rechecked it using Dr. Hatfield's estimated costs for the increase in fire fighters' salaries, the numbers worked out almost exactly the same (after separating out and combining the costs of the raises for police and fire fighters). They also don't seem to leave any room for more police officers.

Thursday, October 05, 2006

I Kinda Predicted It

But you had to click the right link in Saturday's post:
I also wonder if the delay is related to today's article about awarding reconsruction contracts to minority businesses. I totally approve of that, but two big minority subcontractors on other reconstruction work are a major Nagin campaign contributor and a firm with close ties to Nagin's former CAO.

Well, we found out who the two contractors were (From nola.com):
Under the deals, Richard’s Disposal Inc. will earn $12 million annually through 2013 to haul trash from 60,000 homes and small businesses in the city’s most densely populated areas, including Algiers, Uptown, Central and parts of Mid-City, Nagin said. Metro Disposal Inc. will earn $8 million per year to provide the same service in neighborhoods north of Esplanade and City Park avenues and into eastern New Orleans.

The firms have worked as minority subcontractors for at least three years under the city’s current $18 million annual agreement with Waste Management.

I was referring to Richards Disposal, but Metro disposal showed up more than once as a Nagin Campaign donor. So did AMID Landfill, which seemed to be Metro's partner in AMID Metro, which also was a Nagin campaign donor.

The Picayune mentions that Metro's owner, Jimmie Woods, had ties to the Morial administration. It left out his connections to Eddie Jordan. For what it's worth, there are two Jimmie Woods listed in the phone book. One would seem to be a neighbor of our last two mayors.

The two firms probably just impressed the mayor with their impressive work for waste management.

Pointless Note: As I was walking my flat tired bike from St. Bernard to Harrison yesterday, I looked to see if the driver of a car coming off of Park Island was Nagin. Turned out to be Glenn Haydel. Makes you wonder if the FBI or Justice Department has a separate file on the Park Island Boys or Park Island Gang.

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

We Are So O.K.

We are so O.K. that the city can afford to create a new $100,000 a year position for a Base Realignment and Closure director with a $42,000 a year assistant.

We are so O.K. that we can afford to spend millions on energy advisers who seem to have two clients.

We are so O.K. that our sanitation department can get by with 14 employees, because the city can afford to award lucrative contracts for private companies to do the work that city employees used to do.

We are so O.K. that we can afford to give all of our city employees pay raises, not just the police officers and fire fighters who need it. Who cares if most of the underpaid civilian workers (and that was often exaggerated) have been laid off, the remaining employees all deserve more money:
At the other end of the scale, the raises would handsomely benefit Nagin's well-paid executive staff, many of whom earn more than $100,000 annually.

We are so O.K. that we don't even need to ask about the likely cost of the pay increase:
The 10 percent raise before the council applies only to classified workers, but the administration and council are expected to support an ordinance providing the same increase to unclassified employees, meaning mayoral appointees not covered by Civil Service

We are so O.K. that nobody thinks the money might be better spent by putting more civilian employees in the police department or city planning or permits office.

Why are we so O.K.? Well, in addition to that $150M loan that we can fall back on, the mayor also seems to think the city is in line to receive more "Road Home" money. He recently said in TV interview (no link that I could find), that he expected the state to money left over (I think he said a few billion) from the "Road Home" housing money. All we have to do "keep a close eye" on Baton Rouge to make sure lawmakers from other parts of the state try to get money that should be going to New Orleans. Other parishes generally pay their employees (other than police officers) worse than New Orleans, but everything will be O.K. Nobody from another part of the state would ever possibly point to New Orleans' across the board pay increases and lucrative garbage contracts as evidence that his parish needed more help than New Orleans.

We're even so O.K. that our city council doesn't need to post information about meetings on its web site before they've been held. When things are so O.K., what do you need extra public input for?

We are so O.K. that any concerned emails that a city council member gets from an angry constituent, probably don't deserve a response:
Dear Mr. Carter,

As a laid off city worker, I find it unconscionable that the city council would even consider across the board pay raises for its remaining employees when it can't afford to bring back laid off employees. It would be bad enough if the layoff and limited rehiring decisions had been made according to rank, evaluation based ratings or seniority, but the fact that such decisions were almost entirely subjective led to an overwhelming degree of anger in my department, the public library. I can only assume that feelings are the same among former employees of other departments and that they'll also take an across the board pay raise as a slap in the face.

I know that most city workers are underpaid, but once the layoffs took place, I expected the upper level payroll to be brought in line with the lower level payroll. Though there hasn't been time to merge departments, I would have certainly expected the deputy director position to be eliminated in departments that lost most their staff. Within departments, I would have expected decimated bureaus to be combined and bureau chief positions to be eliminated. To my knowledge, where upper level positions have been eliminated, it's been the result of attrition. Frankly, I might have expected some reductions in pay for upper level employees; they are, after all, overseeing much smaller staffs. More importantly, most of the upper level staff received huge raises four years--much larger than the 5% across the board increase of two years ago. Eight employees alone received nearly a half million dollars a year in raises; another eight received similar pay increases. And they're going to get 10% pay raises.

The degree to which city workers is underpaid is slightly exaggerated where civilian employees are concerned. I took about a $5,000.00 a year pay cut when I went from the public library to a university library. Believe it or not, the New Orleans Public Library seems to pay most of its employees better than other public library systems or most universities in the state. However, librarians with advanced degrees do make more at university libraries.

I'm not saying that the Library pays well and I do know that some other departments have lower pay scales. However, I do wonder how the layoffs have affected average pay for civilian employees. I suspect that median pay has doubled for city workers other than police and firefighters. I certainly suspect that average pay for civilian employees is now higher than that of police officers and firemen; it was lower before the layoffs. It wouldn't surprise me if more employees earn above $40K than below $25K; do you know if any of those conjectures are correct? Do you also know how average city employee pay compares to median income for the city as a whole? If not, I would respectfully suggest that you find the answer to those questions before voting.

Even though police officers and firefighters comprise over half of the city's remaining workforce (at least they did immediately after the layoffs), only about half of the $11M in proposed pay increases appears to be going to those departments. That would certainly indicate that other employees are earning more. More importantly, that's $5-6M that could be spent elsewhere. I can certainly think of better places--there's a backlog in both the permits and planning offices and, according to Eyewitness News, police officers are not on patrol duty because they're performing the desk duties of laid off civilian employees.

With the mayor having recently expressed the fear that officials in other parishes will try to get some of the Road Home money that should be going to New Orleans, isn't this the wrong time to be granting an across the board pay increase? It shouldn't matter, but it will certainly be mentioned in legislative debates over state spending.

Finally, whenever I read articles about city finances, I get the impression that the mayor thinks of that $150M private loan package as money the city can fall back on. Since we know that the terms of that loan weren't so favorable after all, six per cent interest and $3.75M in upfront money, that would be a horribly irresponsible position. The loan would cost the city almost $13M in interest and fees the first year alone. If the city council approves the pay raise, I'll be angry enough. If it passes the pay raise, and then has to take out the $150M loan, I'll move and refuse to spend any money in Orleans Parish. I won't even use the Coke machine at work.


That was last Thursday, I wrote a more restrained email to Arnie Fielkow on Monday. The ending was simply:
With all respect, I think those figures might merit a second look before a final vote.

Please take a second look at the issue before it comes up for a full (vote) in the city council. Sincerely,

Neither email has received a response. I did leave out the (vote) in the second email.

Is the City Hiring More Cops?

When the city council meets to discuss city pay raises, somebody other than I should really question the education's Ph.D.'s numbers (I'm not knocking any advanced degree, but her Ph.D. isn't exactly in finance). I said before that the figures we were given could only be explained by a very low number of classified workers left, or very little hiring of new police officers.

Now, something interesting shows up on nola.com:
Compared with a force of 1,668 before the flood, the department now employs 1,425 officers. Of those, 109 are on sick leave and top officials believe 150 more have put in applications at other departments, who have contacted NOPD for references
Starting a wide-ranging recruitment campaign, with the goal of hiring 250 to 350 new officers over the next couple years -- the number Stellingworth said will be necessary to accommodate normal attrition levels -- will be a key test of the city's bureaucracy, depleted of money and personnel..

If a sizable percentage of the remaining work force is unclassified, discussing a pay plan that only discusses the cost of pay increases fclassifiedied workers is laughable. The mayor's numbers don't add up, but nobody on the council seems to want to question them.

Before My Next Angry Post

A Carribean take on the best football game ever:
Watching the New Orleans Saints go up against the Atlanta Falcons at the Superdome Monday night brought back for many feelings of Cayman’s recovery from Hurricane Ivan.

The embattled Saints – lovingly referred to as the Aints by many loyal fans because of their inability to win many football games – became a symbol of the human spirit overcoming adversity when they routed the Falcons 23–3 in American football.

The game meant so much more to the people of New Orleans and the victims of Hurricane Katrina...

Even if you weren’t a Saints fan, you couldn’t help but cheer them on Monday night as they went head–to–head with Atlanta.

They showed the determination and resolve all of us felt as we slowly recovered from Ivan.

To be sure, the human spirit is alive and well here, in New Orleans and the world.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

The Nagin Family Will Be Completely Legitimate

From today's Picayune :
The goal set by the executive order, which extends for three years, calls for any company that gets public financing, incentives or subsidies to use local businesses for at least 50 percent of its subcontracts. Of those, the order calls for 35 percent to be with small businesses that are "economically disadvantaged," a city certification that typically targets minority-owned or women-owned small companies.

Sounds good, but WTF:
Exactly what these requirements will involve will be determined by Donna Addkison, the mayor's executive assistant for economic development, housing and planning. She will establish the process for determining what will be required of individual companies, Williams said.
How many times in the past have we read things like:
Omni's offer wasn't the cheapest of the six offers the city received. But the city didn't have to pick the low bidder, an experienced firm, because the job was considered a professional service rather than a finite task.

The contract for removing "abandoned and damaged vehicles" is a professional services one, meaning the mayor is not required by law to select the lowest bidder

Why bother breaking the law?

Monday, October 02, 2006

The Elves and the Blogger?

Ordinarily, if I don't finish a post on the day that I start it, I copy it to post on the day that I finish (blogger gives the post time as the time you start the post). I made an exception in the case of the last post. I started it before going to bed last night, but was sure I hadn't finished it. Had to wonder when I looked at oyster's blog during my break at work today:

Arrest this man, he talks in maths

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