In a fresh round of finger-pointing, Sheriff Marlin Gusman has accused city leaders of flouting state law and refusing to give the Sheriff’s Office enough money to meet payroll and keep the lights on at Orleans Parish Prison.
Gusman’s attorneys late last week asked a federal judge to intervene, warning of a $3.7 million shortfall for jail operations through the end of this year and requesting an additional $2.9 million the sheriff said he needs to open a new 1,438-bed jail by January.
The latter money would cover expenses — described in court records as “fixtures, furniture and equipment” — not paid for by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which covered the lion’s share of the new jail’s construction in replacing two facilities destroyed by Hurricane Katrina.
The City Council is expected to consider an ordinance that would appropriate the $3.7 million Gusman has requested for 2014 jail operations, but a vote will not occur before next week.
“In the interim period, the Sheriff’s Office has not been able to pay bills for inmate pharmaceutical, inmate food and IT services for the jail,” Blake Arcuri, a lawyer for Gusman, wrote in court filings. He added that the Sheriff’s Office is, “for the third time in as many months, unable to meet its obligations of payroll and payables necessary to operate the jail facilities.”
Gusman’s attorneys asked U.S. District Judge Lance Africk, who is overseeing a court-ordered overhaul of the jail, to order Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s administration to write a check for $900,000 “urgently and immediately needed to fund past-due payables at the jail.”
The city’s $24 million budget allocation to the Sheriff’s Office this year wasn’t enough to meet payroll for all of 2014, the attorneys added, and didn’t “even begin to address” a host of other costs associated with housing and treating the city’s inmate population.
The Sheriff’s Office, which is expected to appear before the City Council on Thursday to present its 2015 budgeting needs, had requested a $44 million allocation for 2014.
Landrieu’s attorneys, during a meeting in Africk’s chambers Wednesday, said the city would advance $986,000 to the Sheriff’s Office as a stopgap by Thursday. They said it is money the city had earmarked for jail expenses but is paying earlier than scheduled.
The two sides also plan to take a closer look — with the help of a court-appointed corrections expert — at a list of equipment Gusman has requested, including 2,100 mattresses the sheriff’s attorneys said “must be ordered imminently to have any chance of arrival” before the new jail opens in early January.
The parties will be researching whether the Sheriff’s Office has any FEMA money available to buy the furniture and equipment. Andy Kopplin, Landrieu’s chief administrative officer, wrote a letter to Gusman last week saying “the city believes the (sheriff) should have enough available FEMA funding to cover” the $2.9 million in new jail equipment.
While Wednesday’s discussion took place in private, a brief summary of the meeting, filed into the court record by the judge, underscored the re-escalating tension between the Landrieu and Gusman camps.
The sheriff’s funding demand — which accused city leaders of acting in “bad faith” — took an acerbic tone just days after Gusman and Landrieu had joined forces in unsuccessfully urging Orleans Parish voters to approve a property tax that would have helped defray the mounting costs of jail reform.
Indeed, Arcuri’s court filings made clear that the cease-fire is over.
“The funding owed by the city to the sheriff is not subject to the city’s budgeting process, nor is it subject to budget cuts,” Arcuri wrote, accusing the city of refusing to pay utility bills for most of the jail facilities. “It is a state-law obligation which requires the city to pay all costs associated with operating the jail.”
The property tax proposition, which was rejected by 53 percent of voters Nov. 4, would have redirected money from an existing property tax that instead will remain earmarked for construction projects funded by the Orleans Parish Law Enforcement District, the sheriff’s taxing entity. The proposal would have generated about $9 million a year in operating revenue for the jail, but it will now be up to City Hall to determine an alternative means of funding the jail reforms.
Landrieu’s attorneys did not file a response in the court record to the sheriff’s allegations. But Africk, in his account of Wednesday’s meeting, noted that the city “takes issue with statements made in the sheriff’s motion as well as the tone of said motion.”
“The court advises the parties that filing adversarial motions regarding matters that can be resolved with discussion is inefficient and counterproductive to maintaining a productive working dialogue,” Africk wrote, adding that “a party’s positions should always be argued in a professional manner.”
The sheriff’s claim that city officials are disregarding a state law requiring they provide a “good and sufficient jail” fueled a long-running standoff over how to fund and implement a series of court-ordered reforms at OPP, which for the past year has been subject to a federal consent decree the sheriff signed with the U.S. Department of Justice. Africk is overseeing its implementation.
The idea behind the jail overhaul was to reverse years of neglect and unconstitutional conditions that prompted a landmark class-action lawsuit filed on behalf of the city’s inmates. But those changes have come with an increasingly expensive price tag.
The sticker shock has played out in federal court over the past several months, punctuated by a pitched dispute over whether the city should build yet another new jail facility — in addition to the $145 million structure nearing completion — to house acutely mentally ill inmates and other special-needs populations of detainees. The mayor and sheriff have dug in their heels on that issue, and it remains unclear whether Africk intends to weigh in on whether another new building is needed to satisfy the terms of the consent decree.
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