Rebuffed by the electorate just last month, Orleans Parish Sheriff Marlin Gusman will ask voters a second time this spring to approve a ballot proposition that would allow the Sheriff’s Office to use money from an existing property tax to pay for a series of expensive reforms at Orleans Parish Prison.
The proposition, which Gusman estimates would generate $4.4 million a year to cover jail expenses, would not increase the current millage rate levied by the Orleans Parish Law Enforcement District, a taxing entity controlled by Gusman, but it would give the sheriff wider latitude in how he spends the proceeds.
At present, the millage is dedicated to paying off bonds for criminal justice-related construction projects financed through the district. The ballot measure, if approved May 2, would allow the sheriff to use the money instead to defray the mounting cost of a federal consent decree that, among many other changes, requires higher salaries for increased staffing at the jail and improved health care for inmates.
Gusman, in a statement Monday, said the proposition would “allow for funds no longer needed for debt service to be shifted to operations of the correctional center.”
The results caused some local officials to question whether the proposition’s wording led voters to believe it was a tax hike, and whether the sheriff and other officials had adequately explained the measure before the election.
The proposition had the support of Mayor Mitch Landrieu, who warned that failure to pass the measure would have dire consequences for the city. The mayor said the city, which is bound by state law to pay for inmate care, might have to make “draconian” cuts to other services to foot the bill for jail expenses if voters did not approve the proposition.
Gusman and Landrieu often have been at odds over how to implement the jail reforms, and their rare agreement on a public policy issue highlighted the uncertainty of how New Orleans will manage to afford the wide-ranging changes mandated by the federal consent decree covering the jail.
Indeed, it remains unclear more than a year after the decree went into effect how much the sheriff will need in any given year to carry out the jail reforms. For instance, Gusman recently signed a contract worth more than $15 million a year with an outside firm, Correct Care Solutions, to provide medical and mental-health care to inmates.
The property tax proposition also had the backing of the Bureau of Governmental Research, a nonpartisan research organization, which said before the November election that U.S. District Judge Lance Africk’s role in overseeing the consent decree “provides greater confidence that the sheriff (would) spend the funds appropriately.”
The Law Enforcement District is a special taxing entity created by state law in 1989 that has allowed the Sheriff’s Office to issue bonds for buildings and equipment. Several million dollars generated by the district’s millage were earmarked to cover the costs of a soon-to-open new jail that weren’t paid for with FEMA grants.
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