In The News › N.O. Sheriff Seeks Tax Extension for Jail

Sep 29, 2008

Source: Times-Picayune

Filed under: On the Ballot, Orleans Parish

N.O. Sheriff Seeks Tax Extension for Jail

N.O. sheriff seeks tax extension for jail
by Laura Maggi, The Times-Picayune
Monday September 29, 2008, 9:36 PM

New Orleans voters on Saturday will be asked to extend an existing tax to raise $63 million for infrastructure improvements in the criminal justice system that backers say will reshape inadequate jails, courts and other buildings that have languished since Hurricane Katrina.

Click here to view the proposed projects to be financed under the renewal

The plan is to capitalize on the influx of Federal Emergency Management Agency dollars owed various agencies for storm damage by combining that money with money raised by the $63 million bond issue, said Criminal Sheriff Marlin Gusman.

With this money, city leaders can build new facilities that are not just replacements for those ruined by Hurricane Katrina, but are much better, he said. For example, Gusman said jail buildings will be renovated to add space to offer vocational training to inmates.

“This is a unique window of opportunity. We are able to take FEMA funds and leverage them to get more for our dollars, “ Gusman said. “This isn’t the kind of thing that we can add on later.”

Gusman spearheaded the plan behind the issue, which would be paid off by the 2.9 mills currently assessed on property owners through the sheriff’s law enforcement district, which last issued bonds in 2001. The plan doesn’t call for new taxes, he said.

Priorities questioned

An evaluation by the Bureau of Governmental Research, an independent watchdog group, applauded Gusman’s intent to offer innovative services and treatment within the courts and jail, while also acknowledging that current jail facilities are “outmoded and severely deteriorated.”

But the group questioned whether these programs are top priorities in a city with huge infrastructure needs ranging from the sewers to schools.

In a report that recommended citizens vote against the bond issue, BGR called for a comprehensive approach to setting infrastructure priorities.

The report also questioned whether all components of the plan are as well thought out as Gusman’s proposal to build new jails and other buildings at his site, saying more information is needed about new facilities for the Orleans Parish coroner and juvenile court.

According to the BGR analysis, if the voters reject the bond issue, the millage would drop to .8 mills immediately, with reductions over the ensuing years. The tax would also cease after 2016.

Gusman took exception with the evaluation, saying it is the product of a unified effort by all members of the criminal justice system.

“It is a comprehensive approach to battling the top priority of this community: public safety, “ he said.

Training, education

Almost $41 million will be used by the Sheriff’s Office to help pay for a series of projects. The biggest will be a $131 million elevated jail with 1,500 beds, designed according to modern correctional standards that include providing inmates with spaces for training and education.

“If we are going to make a difference in this community, we have to change the formula that we are using. You can’t just lock people up and then let them out, “ Gusman said.

The New Orleans municipal and traffic court building, located next to the New Orleans Police Department headquarters on South Broad Street, would tap $7.5 million for a renovation.

Judge Paul Sens, the chief judge of municipal court, said his judges want to launch programs suggested by recent evaluations of the system, such as mental health services or counseling for domestic violence victims. But the current court building simply doesn’t have the space.

The bond issue sets aside $5 million for the coroner’s office, which would create both a new morgue and state-of-the-art forensic laboratory. The Orleans Parish coroner’s office currently operates out of a former funeral home on Martin Luther King Blvd., a temporary, inadequate situation, said John Gagliano, chief investigator for the office.

Juvenile court upgrades

The juvenile court plans to use the $3.7 million from the bond issue to help create a new complex for juvenile offenders: a new detention center to replace the much-criticized Youth Study Center, as well as court buildings and offices to provide services for juvenile delinquents. The whole project would cost $41.3 million, the bulk of which must be raised from FEMA and other sources, said Judge David Bell, the chief judge at juvenile court.

While the BGR report questioned whether the juvenile court proposal involved adequate planning and cost analysis, Bell said the group evaluated an earlier draft of the proposal. Judges are working with independent foundations to figure out what kind of facilities to build, he said.

The bond issue would also provide $3.3 million to the Orleans Parish district attorney’s office to upgrade communication and data-processing systems, as well as to create an elevated walkway between Criminal District Court and the district attorney’s building on South White Street, which is still being renovated.

The clerk of criminal court plans to use $2.8 million from the bond issue to help build a new evidence storage facility, records storage facility and computer network.

Laura Maggi can be reached at lmaggi@timespicayune.com or at 504.826.3316.

Sep 29, 2008

Source: Times-Picayune

Filed under: On the Ballot, Orleans Parish

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