On the Ballot

Orleans Sheriff Susan Hutson offers few details on plan to nearly double taxes funding her office

By Joseph Cranney

Source: The Times-Picayune | NOLA.com

April 13, 2023

New Orleans City Council members cast doubts Thursday on Sheriff Susan Hutson’s proposal to nearly double the tax her office collects, with several criticizing her lack of a campaign around the referendum and wondering aloud if it has any chance of being approved by voters.

With two weeks until the April 29 election, Hutson, who was appearing at a budget meeting, couldn’t answer many of the council’s questions of how she’ll spend the roughly $12.4 million a year in additional money the tax hike is expected to generate.

The bulk of it will cover pay increases that will help recruit and retain deputies, Hutson said. But when asked to itemize those and other planned expenses, Hutson didn’t have exact figures. She spoke generally about the need to renovate facilities and offer more deputy training, which she said is necessary to comply with the decade-old federal consent decree that covers the jail.

“If you want changes, if you want a constitutional jail, if you want us to help with the rate that people are arrested and detained, if you want to have less victims of violent crime, this (tax) will help do that,” Hutson said.

Hutson said she would deliver a more detailed list of expenses to the council by Thursday’s end.

The council provides about 85% of the sheriff’s budget from the city’s general fund, with the remaining portions coming from the sheriff’s tax and other revenues. The council has no oversight of Hutson’s tax rate. She has sole control of the Orleans Parish Law Enforcement District, which sets the rates — though voters set the maximum.

Hutson’s proposal would increase the rate from 2.8 mils to 5.5 mils. 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 rise from $70 to about $137.

Getting the referendum on the ballot was initially expected to cost the sheriff’s office around $475,000, spokeswoman Casey McGee said. The actual costs won’t be known until after the election, and because the referendum isn’t the only item on the ballot, they will likely be far below the initial estimate, McGee said.

During the budget meeting Thursday, Council member Helena Moreno noted that campaigns for other tax referendums in recent years aimed to provide voters with a clear breakout of where the extra money was going. She said that was essential to getting the items passed.

“I’m just not sure you’ve got that out there,” Moreno told Hutson.

Other sheriffs promoting recent millage increases have tackled them like a political campaign, by garnering endorsements, buying ads or erecting yard signs. But so far, Hutson hasn’t done any campaigning.

Council member Lesli Harris said she couldn’t offer her endorsement to constituents who contacted her on the issue because she didn’t know enough about it.

“I couldn’t take a position on it,” Harris said. “I don’t know how we ask voters to take a position on it.”

Hutson told the council they can expect a “full-court press” that will include a round of television and radio interviews next week. The nonprofit, nonpartisan Bureau of Governmental Research is also expected to publish a report on the proposal next week.

Hutson maintained that she’s been getting the word out for months about her department’s pay issues.

The council rejected her request in the fall for $13 million in additional funding, though the council did agree to $2.43-an-hour raises for deputies.

“I’ve talked about this from day one,” Hutson said Thursday.

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%.

Early voting begins Saturday.

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