On the Ballot

Orleans Parish Sheriff Susan Hutson wants tax hike to increase deputy pay, renovate jail

By Joseph Cranney

Source: The Times-Picayune | NOLA.com

April 12, 2023

Just a few months after the New Orleans City Council rejected Orleans Parish Sheriff Susan Hutson’s request for a $13 million budget hike, Hutson is again seeking millions in new funding.

This time, the proposal has flown below the public radar. And instead of appealing to the council, Hutson is taking the matter up with citizens directly.

On the low-key April 29 ballot, Hutson is asking for permission from Orleans Parish voters to nearly double a property tax the sheriff collects to supplement the office’s roughly $50 million in funding from the council. Early voting begins Saturday.

The change would only cost a typical homeowner roughly $50 more a year. Hutson’s office estimates it would increase its year-over-year collections by about $12.4 million, right around the amount the council wouldn’t allocate.

Hutson says the money is needed for safety and facility upgrades that will help her achieve one of her main policy goals: exiting the decade-old federal consent decree that covers the jail she oversees.

However, less than three weeks before the election, she’s done no campaigning to actually deliver that message to voters. Nor has she provided details about how the money will be disbursed.

A sizable chunk would go toward pay raises, to help recruit and retain deputies, she said. But her office didn’t have exact figures, and a spokeswoman said Hutson is reviewing how many new positions she needs. About $1.75 million would pay for annual cost-of-living increases, with an additional $1.5 million for employee healthcare.

Hutson has 575 employees and is hiring another 70, spokesperson Casey McGee said. The starting salary for deputies is $39,312.

About $11 million is earmarked for capital improvements over a period of years, though McGee said the office doesn’t have a complete projects list.

She shared a list of about $3.2 million in projects that were proposed during budget talks with the council in the fall. That included renovations to a dozen interview rooms, replacing 14 sliding doors and 26 beds, a build-out of a second-floor corridor and the installation of nearly 300 food slots in cell doors, among other projects.

The additional funding would not be used to help pay for an annex to the jail that would house inmates with mental illnesses, McGee said. Officials said in January that the only bid for the project came in at $89 million, 25% over the estimated cost.

Hutson was elected last year in part on a platform of opposing that project, though the federal judge overseeing the consent decree has ordered it to be built.

Hutson’s proposal calls for increasing the tax rate from 2.8 mills to 5.5 mills. For a $250,000 property with a homestead exemption, that would increase annual taxes from $49 to about $96. For the same property without a homestead exemption, the taxes would go up from $70 to about $137.

The nonprofit Bureau of Governmental Research will publish a report on Hutson’s proposal next week, said the group’s president, Becky Mowbray.

The referendum will appear on the ballot alongside a runoff for an open seat on the Orleans Parish Criminal District Court bench. Simone Levine and Leon Roché II were the top vote getters in that race in March. But voter turnout was slim — around 10%.

Other sheriffs proposing similar measures in recent years have approached them much like typical political campaigns, garnering endorsements from local stakeholders, paying for targeted advertising and erecting yard signs.

Jefferson Parish Sheriff Joe Lopinto successfully campaigned for a millage increase last year, also in a low-turnout election.

But Hutson has been almost silent on the issue. She discussed her proposal on Councilman Oliver Thomas’s radio show this week, Thomas said.

Asked what other outreach she’s conducted, McGee said: “She has been speaking with community-based, business and religious groups to spread awareness about this proposed millage when invited.”

The council will question Hutson over the proposal during a budget hearing Thursday, though members have no oversight of her millage rates. Like other sheriffs, Hutson has sole control of the Orleans Parish Law Enforcement District, which sets the rates – though voters set the maximum.

Hutson would do well to be more visible on the issue, considering a wave of negative press she’s received in the last year, Thomas said.

“A few weeks out, it has not been the type of build-up campaign to rally the kind of support she needs,” he said. “The biggest concern is, given the kind of news she’s getting right now, how does that affect it?”

Other council members declined to discuss her proposal ahead of the hearing, saying that hadn’t had time to properly vet it.

Hutson in recent weeks has been dogged by a string of controversies stemming from her decision to put up several of her top deputies in local hotel rooms during Mardi Gras. Last month, she fired four top deputies, including the chief financial officer who said he was investigating possible improprieties of that decision.

The federal judge overseeing the consent decree has also criticized Hutson for not disclosing more information about a wave of violence at the jail last year. That included a homicide, suicide and four stabbings during the summer. A group of inmates in August also barricaded themselves in their cell, refusing food, water and medication in a three-day protest.

In November, council members were skeptical of Hutson’s request for a $13 million increase, which included $250,000 for furniture and $668,000 in travel, a tenfold increase from prior years. Hutson told the council the travel figure was a mistake.

More pressing to Hutson was the need to increase deputy pay. She told the council she had 254 open positions, and later said there were 7.8 residents at the jail for every deputy, compared to a 3.3 national average.

OPSO’s funding from the council has remained mostly flat over the last five years, while NOPD’s has increased by $45 million, Hutson’s office said.

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