In The News › Orleans Sheriff Marlin Gusman to ask voters again for tax to fund jail operations

Orleans Sheriff Marlin Gusman to ask voters again for tax to fund jail operations

By Naomi Martin | The Times-Picayune

December 15, 2014

To help fund Orleans Parish Prison, Sheriff Marlin Gusman will ask voters next spring to pass a tax measure that is nearly identical to a proposal he and Mayor Mitch Landrieu pushed unsuccessfully in November.

The initiative, set to appear on the May 2 ballot, would freeze at 2.8 mills a property tax rate used to pay off debt from brick-and-mortar projects. The proposal, however, will ask voters to allow using money not needed to pay debt to pay instead for deputies’ salaries and other jail operating expenses.

On Nov. 4, 53 percent of voters rejected a proposal to freeze the tax rate at 2.9 mills.

Gusman on Monday approved resending the ballot initiative to voters, during a meeting of the Law Enforcement District, said his spokesman, Phil Stelly. Gusman has sole control over the district, which collects taxes for public safety uses.

“It does not increase taxes,” Stelly said. “It’s simply asking the voters for authorization to use the portion not going toward capital debt for maintenance and operating expenses.”

Gusman said in a news release that the proposition would “maintain the current tax rate, but allow for funds no longer needed for debt service to be shifted to operations of the correctional center.”

The district has collected taxes at a 2.9-mill rate since 2008 to finance capital projects in the criminal justice system, such as renovations at Criminal District Court and construction of a new coroner’s office.

That rate will decline next year because Gusman paid off his bond debt and the city’s tax base grew, said Gusman’s bond attorney, Grant Schlueter. The new measure would freeze the rate at 2.8 mills and allow the leftover balance to be spent on efforts to comply with a federally mandated overhaul of the jail, the sherriff’s office said.

Gusman’s office said the new tax would generate at least $4.4 million for the jail that would not have to come out of the city’s general fund.

In any case, that cash would go a long way toward paying for the consent decree, which a federal court-appointed monitor recently testified could cost as much as $22 million a year. The sheriff’s new medical and mental health contract, considered a major step toward improving conditions for inmates, alone will cost about $15 million in 2015.

In supporting the November proposal, Landrieu had warned that without shifting some of the money for jail operations, the city’s financial future would be bleak. A Landrieu spokeswoman Monday did not immediately comment on the mayor’s position regarding the sheriff’s new proposal.

The nonprofit Bureau of Governmental Research also supported the November failed initiative. BGR President Janet Howard said in October that the extra revenue would help the city provide a constitutional jail without cutting services, making it “one of the least painful options out there.”

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