Orleans Parish voters who agreed in 2000 to tax themselves for $27 million in criminal justice projects probably never figured that a chunk of the work would remain undone 14 years later.
But that’s how things stand with two new courtrooms that were slated to replace cramped attic quarters at Criminal District Court, where a pint-sized freight lift is the only way up to the courts for those who can’t make a steep flight of stairs.
About $6.9 million is still earmarked for the project from a bond fund controlled by Sheriff Marlin Gusman, the lone trustee of the Orleans Parish Law Enforcement District.
But if the city has its way, that money won’t be spent on the courtrooms after all. Instead, Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s administration is aiming to tap unused money from the Federal Emergency Management Agency for that project.
The move is aimed at allowing Gusman to have more money for jail reforms without breaking the city’s bank, assuming voters on Nov. 4 approve another tax measure for the Law Enforcement District, Chief Administrative Officer Andy Kopplin said in a recent interview.
The plan to tap FEMA funds — at the expense of other public safety projects on which the money might be spent — amounts to a juggling act by the city in its scramble to fund the demands of a federal consent decree requiring Gusman to provide better care for inmates at his troubled jail.
State law requires the city to pay for the inmates’ care, making Landrieu and Gusman awkward fiscal bedfellows amid their legal wrangling over jail costs.
The administration’s plan assumes voters will pass a measure that would keep taxes at the same 2.9 mills now assessed from another, 2008 bond measure for criminal justice projects, also controlled by the Law Enforcement District.
The new measure would extend the tax and shift Gusman’s use of the funds beyond simply capital projects. Voter approval would mean that after debt payments on the current bonds, Gusman could spend the rest on “the operation, maintenance and upkeep of jails and related facilities.”
The tax would generate about $5 million in its first year, according to a report by the Bureau of Governmental Research, which supports the measure. As the capital debt falls, the money available for operations would increase.
Kopplin said the administration is looking at other capital projects that it might also be able to finance using unspent FEMA money, including about $4.5 million to help finish the Coroner’s Office complex now under construction.
FEMA hasn’t yet approved the two plans, and if it rejects them, Kopplin said the funding would revert back to the Law Enforcement District. It’s unclear how much additional annual money for Sheriff’s Office operations those moves would generate.
Kopplin made clear that Landrieu supports the ballot measure regardless.
“We have the ability to increase the benefit of (the tax) by using some of the other resources the city has to finish projects like the courthouse renovation,” Kopplin said.
“You can see why it’s in the city’s interest to use its capital funds to finish projects that otherwise would be funded by the Law Enforcement District. We think this makes a whole lot of sense for a variety of reasons.”
It also has the benefit of being legal, according to attorneys for the city and the sheriff’s bond attorneys, Kopplin said.
He insisted that voters who passed the measure with 69 percent of the vote in 2000 are still getting what they wanted.
City officials outlined the plan at a meeting last week with the Criminal Court judges, pledging that the two courtrooms will get built one way or another.
“What the voters did was to authorize the sheriff to issue debt for a particular project. He can’t issue debt for some other project they didn’t authorize him to do,” Kopplin said. “The voters’ expectation was that the project will be completed.”
BGR President Janet Howard said she didn’t see a problem with the moves proposed by the administration because no bond money is being redirected for other purposes.
“I don’t see that happening,” she said. “The voters are authorizing this new millage, approving a use for operational purposes. That’s why it’s not a problem.”
Judicial Administrator Rob Kazik said that after years of planning and a litany of obstacles, the city finally put the courtroom construction project out to bid, only to pull it back early this year because of concerns about an estimator’s role in the process.
“They’ve assured us we’re going to get two new courtrooms out of this, that the project is going to be on schedule,” Kazik said after the meeting this week.