On the Ballot

New Orleans watchdog group opposes Sheriff Susan Hutson’s tax hike

By Joseph Cranney

Source: The Times-Picayune | NOLA.com

April 19, 2023

Orleans Parish Sheriff Susan Hutson’s proposal to nearly double a tax her office collects is premature, skirts the practices of other large parishes and remains short on details just 10 days ahead of the April 29 referendum, an independent policy group said Wednesday.

The nonpartisan Bureau of Governmental Research opposes Hutson’s plan, which would increase the sheriff’s millage rate from 2.8 mills to 5.5 mills. It’d raise taxes about $50 a year for a typical homeowner and would net nearly $12 million a year in additional funding.

Hutson still hasn’t said how she’ll spend at least a third of the money, BGR said. And while Hutson identified pay raises and additional deputy training as key reasons why the tax hike is needed, she has not itemized those expenses or disclosed who exactly will get raises, or how they’ll be structured.

Hutson has maintained she’s been clear about the issues she says she inherited when she took office last year. She said pay raises and facility and technology upgrades are needed to comply with the city’s decade-old federal consent decree covering the jail.

In a statement delivered through a spokesperson, Hutson noted that the BGR report acknowledged that low pay has contributed to staffing issues, and that capital improvement needs are “substantial.”

“While we disagree with some of the findings of the report, it underscores why the sheriff is moving forward with this millage to allow the voters to decide these important questions,” spokesperson Casey McGee said.

New Orleans City Council members in a budget hearing last week questioned why Hutson didn’t have more details for her millage increase, or why she hasn’t done more to get the word out.

Other sheriffs proposing millage increases in recent years have handled them like political campaigns, while Hutson has only begun to stump for her tax over the last week. She held a media tour of the jail Tuesday and later pitched her tax increase to a group of about 30 people in a forum at First Grace United Methodist Church.

Hutson says the most pressing need at the jail is staffing, with some 400 “essential” positions sitting vacant. While she’s earmarked about $11.7 million in revenues from her millage increase for pay raises and employee benefits, she hasn’t addressed how she’ll pay to fill those vacancies.

At the office’s average salary of nearly $39,000, it’d cost more than $15 million to fill those positions, BGR said in its report.

“These are significant omissions that reduce the spending plan to a piecemeal approach to addressing some of the jail’s needs,” the 22-page report says. The report adds that sheriffs in other large parishes receive oversight on their spending through the parish council budgeting process.

The referendum will appear on the April 29 ballot alongside a runoff for an open seat on the Orleans Parish Criminal District Court bench.

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