Sunday, February 22, 2009

Charity Hospital Still Empty …


From an article by Rick Jervis and Brad Heath, USA TODAY:

Nearly 3½ years after the flood ended, Charity Hospital is still empty. Plans to replace the soaring Art Deco-era hospital with a new one are stalled. Instead, Charity has become perhaps the most notable symbol here of the languid pace of government efforts to rebuild or replace billions of dollars worth of public works wrecked when Katrina and Hurricane Rita hit the Gulf Coast in 2005. Among thousands of projects that still haven't moved forward, none has been as big or contentious as Charity.

The result, says Dr. Kevin Stephens, New Orleans' health director, is that the city lacks a hospital capable of handling the most severe trauma cases and isn't able to train enough new physicians. Without that, he says, the city will keep losing doctors, further straining its health care system.

"You have to train the medical students with the best equipment and latest techniques," Stephens says. "Or else the shortage is going to continue."

The sticking point over Charity's future is money. Louisiana wants $492 million in federal disaster aid, money it says it needs to replace Charity with a new $1.2 billion teaching hospital and medical complex; the state plans to pay for the rest. The Federal Emergency Management Agency says much of the damage to Charity was caused by years of neglect that disaster aid wasn't intended to fix. Its latest offer was $150 million.

Even that number may be inflated. FEMA engineers identified only about $99 million in storm-related damage to the hospital, which was in poor shape before it flooded. The government tacked on another $51 million, partly out of "a desire to accelerate the recovery of the health care system in New Orleans," according to an agency report. Federal law generally limits disaster aid in the government's Public Assistance program to specific repairs.

FEMA spokesman Bob Josephson says the additional money is for "disputed damages that could not be conclusively determined as disaster-related." The project is stuck until the funding stalemate ends, says Raymond Lamonica, general counsel for Louisiana State University, which operated Charity.

After Katrina, Charity's doctors worked out of tents. Then they saw patients in shopping centers. They're still in temporary quarters, working out of another hospital near Charity that was hurriedly reopened after Katrina.

The giant downtown hospital opened in 1939 and was a key provider of health care for the city's poor and uninsured. Even before it was waterlogged, Charity was in rough shape. Reports prepared for the state showed its roof leaked, and critical systems weren't up to code, requiring millions of dollars worth of repairs.

Today, the hospital on Tulane Avenue is ringed by an 8-foot-tall chain-link fence topped by barbed wire. Sections of plywood cover windows that have blown out.

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Sunday, February 15, 2009

Obstacles Encountered by Inspector General ...


Some of the material in this article is extracted from stories by the Times-Picayune, Cerasoli resigns and temporary replacement named:

Building the inspector general's office proved far tougher than Cerasoli envisioned. And the challenges that remain -- even the basic work of clearly defining city agencies, budgets and policies -- are more daunting than a successor might suspect. After 17 months, Cerasoli said, the office still needs to double its staff and garner basic tools and access to records.

Still, Cerasoli's experience here has opened a valuable view into the inner workings of a mysterious municipal apparatus.

"On a difficulty scale of one-to-10, it's a 10. I would compare it to governments I've looked at in the developing world," said Cerasoli, who has given lectures about corruption in such Third World countries as Sierra Leone and Swaziland.

In New Orleans, he said, "information technology is in a terrible state. Getting access to information people regularly access in other places is a major problem. Public documents aren't being made public, if they exist at all.

"And I don't think the city government truly understands what the inspector general is supposed to do -- and might provide more resistance as it becomes more clear, " he said.

"Nothing's on the level in New Orleans,” he recalled telling one fellow inspector.

Though Cerasoli had fully expected the challenge of his career in New Orleans, he was in for a few shocks. The Nagin administration at first offered him a $250,000 budget -- a ludicrously low figure, he said. In Massachusetts, he had overseen a budget of $3 million and a staff of 49.

"But every one of those things was a big fight, " Cerasoli said. "And after we got the money, we couldn't spend it, because everything we bought had to go through the city's purchasing process."

Requests ranging from pencils to lease agreements took weeks or even months to snake through the Nagin administration's approval process. Inquiries often produced excuses: "The computers are down,” or "So-and-so is on vacation,” or "We can't find your paperwork."

"There was always that mysterious hand there, that made you wonder if somebody was trying to stop it,” Cerasoli said.

Just figuring out who runs what has proved an immense challenge, with a government splintered into scores of agencies, commissions and quasi-governmental nonprofit groups, some with separate dedicated tax-revenue streams, their own auditors and scant scrutiny.

So far, Cerasoli has put together a list of 140 such city entities, including such curiosities as the Delgado-Albania Plantation Commission. His inspectors found records of a New Orleans Planetarium Commission, created in 1986, but couldn't confirm whether it still exists, or ever did.

"One main goal has just been to simply identify the entity that is the city of New Orleans,” Cerasoli said. "Nobody can give you an organizational chart."

Leonard C. Odom (pictured) has been appointed to serve as interim inspector general, just hours after Cerasoli announced he is resigning. Before coming to New Orleans, Odom served as the assistant in charge of investigations in the Inspector General's Office of Washington, D.C.

He has served as president of the National Association of Inspectors General for the past two years.

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Sunday, February 08, 2009

Cerasoli resigns ...


Some of the material in this article is extracted from stories by the Times-Picayune, Cerasoli resigns and temporary replacement named:

One more force for good has been beaten by the corrupt New Orleans governmental system. Last week we profiled Bob Cerasoli, the city’s first inspector general. We were excited that there was finally someone looking at questionable practices, employee incompetence and opportunities for abusing the trust of the New Orleans citizenry.

Cerasoli, the veteran Massachusetts investigator who navigated a maze of bureaucracy and politics to found the office, has resigned, ostensibly to reunite with his family and prepare for surgery to remove potentially dangerous growths. While these are certainly valid reasons for leaving, there is still the feeling that, even though he felt me was making a difference, the obstacles erected by the Ray Nagin (pictured) administration were too much to overcome.

For the city, the loss of Cerasoli will set back the arduous task of establishing an independent watchdog over City Hall. His hiring 17 months ago, and a subsequent City Charter change that solidified permanent financing for the office, were coups for a city long impervious to reform. Cerasoli agonized over the pressure to meet the lofty expectations of corruption-weary New Orleanians.

"I keep feeling this vicious guilt,” he said. "I've never given up on anything before in my life."

"It's just so hard, you know, the pressure,” he said, wiping away tears. "It's enormous. It's onerous. I get that all the time, people walking up to me on the street. . . . It's wonderful, seeing the rising expectations of the people here. But the last thing I want to be is the next 'last, best hope for New Orleans.'

"It's not about me. It's about building the office,” he said, repeating what has become a mantra even as he has become an unlikely celebrity in a job that in many places would be held by an anonymous functionary.

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Sunday, February 01, 2009

The Inspector General of New Orleans …



Since we went to press, Robert Cerasoli has resigned. We'll have more about this next week.

This article was adapted from an entry by Kevin Allman on bestofneworleans.com:

Robert A. Cerasoli (pictured) has just released his first report, 15 months after he became New Orleans' first-ever inspector general, "Interim Report on the Management of the Administrative Vehicle Fleet."

City ordinances limit the number of take-home vehicles to 60 (50 for the mayor's office, 10 for the fire department), but Cerasoli's investigators found 273 vehicles. The mayor's office alone accounts for 73 of them; mayor Nagin himself has both a 2005 Lincoln Continental (insured value: $37,500) and a 2007 Ford Expedition ($33,042.25). The list details a fleet valued at more than $4 million, and the mayor's 2009 budget includes another $2 million for a "vehicle replacement program."

Nagin told WWL-TV that the 60-car limit was an  "outdated ordinance." By Thursday, as the City Council attempted to finalize the 2009 budget, Nagin had backed down a bit. In a written statement to the council, he promised to respond in writing to Cerasoli's report by Jan. 30, "and not to purchase any administrative vehicles this budget year." The council is expected to vote again on the car program this week.

When Cerasoli arrived from Boston to set up the Office of the Inspector General, he needed inventory tags — the little bar-code stickers that offices use to keep track of computers, monitors and other workplace valuables. He called City Hall to get some. It was one of his first, but not his last, surprises when it came to New Orleans city government.

"The city does not know all its assets," he says. "The city does not have a list of all its real property and all its movable property. They don't have inventories of anything. When we called people [at City Hall] to ask them where they get their inventory tags, they said they don't have any. They don't buy them.

"You can't steal what you don't own," he says wryly. "See what I mean?" 

As Cerasoli walks down Baronne Street he passes a New Breed cab parked at the curb. "Hey!" says the driver, sticking his hand out the window for a shake. "Thank you," Cerasoli mutters, shyly but sincerely. The scenario repeats itself six times in four blocks: a pedestrian stops in his tracks and exclaims, "Great work!"; a motorist stops in the intersection at Perdido Street and waves him through enthusiastically.

"To me, coming from Boston, it seems so decadent," he says softly "seeing all these people, doing all the things that they're doing."

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