In The News › Change to allow Orleans sheriff more flexibility with millage wins narrow victory

Change to allow Orleans sheriff more flexibility with millage wins narrow victory

By Jim Mustian

The Advocate

May 3, 2015

A ballot proposition that city leaders said was critical to paying for a series of court-ordered reforms at Orleans Parish Prison squeaked through with a narrow majority Saturday.

With all 366 precincts reporting, the measure had the support of 51.7 percent of voters.

The measure won’t increase taxes.

Six months after rejecting an almost identical proposition, voters were more receptive Saturday to allowing Sheriff Marlin Gusman wider latitude in how he spends the proceeds of an existing property tax. Gusman has said the measure, in its first year, will free up roughly $4 million that can be spent on maintaining a new $145 million jail scheduled to open this year and hiring hundreds of new deputies needed to safely staff it.

In a rare consensus, Mayor Mitch Landrieu, whose administration under state law must pay for the care of inmates, joined Gusman in beseeching the electorate to approve the measure, warning that a failure to pass the proposition could result in crippling cuts to city services. The sheriff said last week the jail funding had been “desperately needed.”

As written, the law had restricted the application of the property tax, currently levied at 2.8 mills, to paying off construction projects financed through the Orleans Parish Law Enforcement District, Gusman’s taxing entity. The measure approved on Saturday allows the Law Enforcement District to use proceeds from the tax no longer needed for debt service to help pay for the mounting expenses of a federally monitored plan to reform OPP. The reform plan, known as a consent decree, calls for sweeping changes in Sheriff’s Office policy, beefed-up staffing and drastic improvements in medical and mental health care for inmates.

While the millage rate won’t rise, the amount of money available to pay for jail costs gradually will increase as the Law Enforcement District pays off bonds the voters authorized in 2008. By the end of its 10-year life, the tax will generate between $8.5 million and $9 million to be used for jail operations, Gusman has said. The millage rate would have gradually declined if voters had rejected the measure again, as the tax would have automatically been reduced to cover only the remaining bonds.

About 53 percent of voters rejected a similar proposal in November.

Under the tax, homeowners with a homestead exempt property worth $300,000 still will pay $63 a year, according to the Bureau of Governmental Research, a nonpartisan research organization that backed the measure. Commercial property owners, meanwhile, will pay $39.20 per $100,000 of value, according to the BGR.

While they presented a united front over the proposal, Landrieu and Gusman have been feuding bitterly in federal court over the mounting costs of a court-ordered plan for reform that stemmed from a consent decree the sheriff signed with the U.S. Justice Department and the city’s inmates, who filed a class-action lawsuit over the jail’s violent and unsanitary condition. The city opposed the settlement agreement, in large part because of its uncertain price tag. The sheriff has estimated his agency will need approximately $1.6 million a year to increase deputies’ salaries and an additional $4.3 million a year to hire 200 new deputies, according to the BGR.

Court-appointed experts have warned that the new $145 million jail should not open until the Sheriff’s Office can assure it will be adequately staffed. Many of the violent inmate-on-inmate assaults that occur on a near daily basis at OPP have been blamed on a dangerous lack of supervision.

“Thanks to FEMA, we’ve been able to build the building that we need. Now we need to make sure that we have the funds to operate and maintain it,” Gusman said last week.

Attorneys for Landrieu, however, have accused the sheriff of essentially requesting a blank check from the city, without regard for financial prudence. Most recently, they have objected to Gusman awarding an $83 million contract to an outside vendor, Correct Care Solutions, to provide medical and mental health care to inmates for five years, as mandated by the consent decree. City officials are disputing the validity of the contract in federal court.

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