Orleans Parish Sheriff Marlin Gusman asked voters for a tax — and they said no, even if the passage of the Law Enforcement District millage would not have raised net tax levels on property owners.
The Orleans Law Enforcement District, which Gusman uses to issue bonds, levies a 2.9-mill property tax dedicated to servicing bonds that voters authorized in 2008. That millage rate, set each year at the level needed to cover principal and interest payments, is projected to decline in coming years as the bonds are retired.
The sheriff proposed keeping the millage in place and gradually using the cash, as bonds were paid off, to support the operations at Orleans Parish Prison.
With all 366 precincts reporting, the 10-year tax was defeated Tuesday, 51,294 votes against and 45,903 for.
While it’s a blow to Gusman, the result is also a rebuke of the wide array of elected officials who backed the proposal as a relatively painless path toward helping to fund the expensive court-mandated reforms at the prison.
Those provisions are costly, even if all concerned — whether critics of the prison or the sheriff or the city, or all of the above — have long recognized the urgency of humane and efficient operation of New Orleans jails. The court and the U.S. Justice Department consent decree recognize the problems and mandate solutions, but the latter cost money. Gusman signed a contract just last month worth more than $15 million a year with an outside firm, CorrectCare Solutions, to provide medical and mental health services for inmates.
The Gusman tax swap would have involved about $9 million a year for jail operations when all the related bond issues had been retired. That’s not the permanent solution, but it seemed a sensible one that gained wide support among officials, not least Mayor Mitch Landrieu, who warned that city services face cuts if the general fund has to pay all the freight for the court-mandated improvements.
The ballot measure had even been endorsed by the Bureau of Governmental Research, a nonpartisan research organization that otherwise has been skeptical of the Law Enforcement District, a taxing entity controlled wholly by the sheriff. Landrieu backed it for good financial reasons, but now it’s back to the drawing board — if not the cutting board, from the mayor’s budget perspective
That alliance was also unusual, as the mayor and sheriff have clashed over questions of efficiency of managing the sprawling jail complex. But even if one side or the other were right about particular efficiencies, the reality is that more money is required.