Orleans Parish Sheriff Marlin Gusman will ask voters in the fall to approve a change in how certain property tax proceeds may be used by his office, a move he said would not increase taxes but would allow an existing millage to be used for operating expenses instead of strictly capital expenditures.
Under the proposal, tax dollars not needed for capital debt could be used for the maintenance of new jail facilities, said Philip Stelly, Gusman’s spokesman.
“The driving force is the need to have funding solutions in place to cover maintenance and operating expenses at new facilities,” Stelly said, referring to the sheriff’s new kitchen building and a $145 million jail expected to open later this year.
The 2.9-mill property tax in question is levied by the sheriff’s Law Enforcement District. Stelly said the change would “generate $7.5 million” but not increase taxes.
The proposal comes as the Sheriff’s Office is seeking to hire hundreds of new employees to meet the requirements of a court-ordered plan for jail reform. Gusman has been tussling with city officials over funding for the implementation of a federal consent decree, which called for systemic changes at the long-troubled Orleans Parish Prison.
Gusman wants to build another new jail building that he says is needed to house special-needs populations of inmates, and he has asked city officials to pay for it using hurricane recovery dollars from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. But city officials, who by law are responsible for paying for the care of city inmates, would rather renovate the new 1,438-bed jail expected to open later this year so it can accommodate inmates who need specialized mental health treatment.
The city says its plan is cheaper by millions of dollars, but Gusman opposes renovating the new jail on grounds it might disrupt its operation.
A joint report submitted this week by attorneys for the city and Gusman said the city officials believe “any FEMA funds (available) should be used to fund other projects authorized by the Law Enforcement District so that the LED millage may be used for ongoing consent decree costs (i.e., operation costs of a constitutional jail.)”
Stelly said Law Enforcement District tax dollars would be used for existing facilities and not for the so-called Phase III facility Gusman wants to build for special inmate populations.
He refused to comment on whether the proposed change from capital to operating purposes, set to go before voters in November, would affect other agencies in New Orleans that have received funding from the LED.
“I’m not going to answer that question,” Stelly said.
Created by state law in 1989, the LED is a special taxing entity that has allowed the Sheriff’s Office to issue bonds for buildings and equipment, according to the Bureau of Governmental Research. Several million dollars generated by the district’s millage have been allocated to pay for the cost of jail construction not covered by FEMA, according to news accounts.
Clerk of Criminal District Court Arthur Morrell said he did not object to Gusman’s proposal when the sheriff asked him whether he would support it, though he said it means his office might lose some future funding. Gusman is the CEO of the Law Enforcement District.
“My position is a little different than (the sheriff’s),” Morrell said. “I don’t own any property. The only bond money I can get is for upgrading my office.”
Christopher Bowman, a spokesman for District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro, declined to comment on whether the sheriff’s proposal would affect funding for the District Attorney’s Office, saying he hadn’t yet reviewed the details.
Stelly issued a news release Thursday saying the city “is in full support of the measure.” The release quoted Mayor Mitch Landrieu as saying, “We are working with the sheriff to create funding solutions like this one that will not increase taxes for the citizens of New Orleans.”
The LED is scheduled to meet Monday at the Sheriff’s Office “to consider adopting a resolution calling an election to authorize an ad valorem tax to be held within the district,” according to a brief public notice published last month. Stelly did not respond to an inquiry about that tax, and it was not clear whether it was related to the measure Gusman announced Thursday.
The meeting is scheduled for 10 a.m. at the Sheriff’s Office, 819 S. Broad St.
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