Council endorses watchdog's budget
Tuesday, November 27, 2007
By Michelle Krupa
Calling it a historic moment for New Orleans, City Council members on Tuesday offered effusive and unanimous support for Inspector General Robert Cerasoli $3.2 million budget request to launch his office next year.
The sum, which is up for council approval when it votes Friday on the entire budget, amounts to more than double what Mayor Ray Nagin had recommended in his 2008 spending plan for the newly established anti-corruption agency. It includes $300,000 to finance the city's Ethics Review Board, which the mayor's budget excluded.
Addressing Cerasoli during an hourlong budget hearing Tuesday, Council President Arnie Fielkow pledged that the inspector general's office will get enough money to support a staff of 25 investigators and auditors and that the financing will not be tied to a 2-mill increase in the city's 2008 tax rate, which Nagin recommended but City Council members say they oppose.
"You're only going to be as successful as you have cooperation and access," Fielkow said, "and I think it was wrong and shortsighted to give you less than you asked for and to tie it to something that we're not going to approve on Friday. But we're going to find the money."
A spokeswoman for Nagin said in an e-mail late Tuesday that the fact that the mayor's budget proposal included the inspector general's office demonstrates that it was a priority.
"The mayor simply, in an effort to be financially responsible, sought to provide the funds through another source," spokeswoman Ceeon Quiett said of Nagin's proposed millage increase.
Quiett also pointed out that according to a budget consultant hired by Nagin, the mayor's proposal of $1.3 million to run the inspector general's office next year "would provide that office one of the highest per-capita investments in the United States."
Cerasoli has said it is unfair to compare his budget with that of inspectors general in other cities, where in many cases the work of a principal inspector general is bolstered by other inspectors assigned to specific agencies or departments, such as transit and public housing.
New Orleans voters in 1995 approved a package of City Charter revisions that authorized an inspector general's office and mandated the creation of an Ethics Review Board, but neither was implemented until the City Council voted last year to set them up.
Expecting the inspector general's office to ramp up by mid-2007, the City Council allotted $250,000 for it this year. After the Ethics Review Board voted in June to hire Cerasoli, a national expert in the duties of state and local inspectors general, the council approved his annual salary at $157,000, figuring he would earn about $50,000 by year's end. But Cerasoli refused to spend any money, saying it wasn't fiscally responsible to hire staff or rent office space until he knew he could support the expenditures next year.
Budget request reduced
With his efforts focused on laying the groundwork for the new office, Cerasoli prepared his 2008 proposal with an eye toward a full-fledged launch, he said. He originally asked Mayor Ray Nagin for $3.8 million, or about 0.5 percent of city's annual operating budget.
But after it became clear that the sum was politically unpalatable, Cerasoli reduced his request to $2.9 million, which he has said would pay for two first assistants, 10 criminal investigators, 10 auditors, three engineers and administrative costs such as advertising, computer hardware and office space. He also lobbied for a $300,000 allotment for the Ethics Review Board, to which he reports. He has described the $3.2 million budget as the minimum necessary to do the job.
Cerasoli has said any investment in the inspector general's budget can be expected to generate a fivefold return to city coffers over several years as staffers uncover waste and graft in city operations and recommend more efficient uses of the money. He told the council Tuesday that he will set a high standard on the front end by managing his own budget well.
"The money that you could or could not give me at this point is going to fund an office that will do work. It's not going to go to me personally. I'm not going to go out and hire my friends -- because I don't know anybody here," said Cerasoli, who spent most of his career in Massachusetts.
Responding to some council members' concerns that the new inspector general would strut into town and produce scores of arrests, Cerasoli said his goal for the office is "80 percent prevention, 20 percent detection," meaning he will invest the bulk of his resources in rooting out government waste, with the rest focused on criminal investigations.
"An inspector general is all about fair, equitable contracting. An inspector general is all about seeing that the most disadvantaged people in this city get the services that they deserve and get them quickly and efficiently," he said. "Governments have to provide for people where there is no one other than government to provide for them."
A long road ahead
Establishing an inspector general's office from scratch will require tedious efforts, he said. It may take as long as two years before he can provide the council with an organizational chart "to give you a clear picture of how and why this city operates and how money is being used," Cerasoli said, adding that it is critical for his office to lay out the rules of local government.
Councilman James Carter asked Cerasoli to consider writing a guidebook that would spell out "proper conduct for government employees."
Cerasoli agreed and added that he hopes employees of City Hall and the bevy of quasi-city agencies whose activities his office will examine will approach him if they need help traversing the complicated fiscal and ethics quandaries of government, including "some of the very difficult contracts that people have been faced with."
While the council has engaged in heated debate about many aspects of the past year's push to establish the inspector general's office, council members on Tuesday united behind the effort, even vowing to support Cerasoli's attempts to get the Legislature to fortify his office's investigative authority, including subpoena powers, in a special session on ethics that Gov-elect Bobby Jindal says he will call early next year.
Dedicated revenue stream
In her first day on the job, Councilwoman Jacqueline Brechtel Clarkson offered to lead a campaign to enshrine a provision in the City Charter that would automatically allocate 0.5 percent of city's annual operating budget every year to the inspector general's office.
The step, which would negate the need for the inspector general to participate in City Hall's inherently political budget process, would require approval in a citywide referendum. At least four members of the council would have to support the idea to get the issue on the ballot.
"Can't we get you your own dedicated source of revenue so you don't even have to come back to this council, so then you are removed from any bureaucratic form of government?" Clarkson said.
"That would be the ultimate success of the office," Cerasoli replied. "The greatest accomplishment of the inspector general is the survival of the office."
Michelle Krupa can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org