The New Orleans City Council grudgingly agreed Tuesday to pay the Orleans Parish Sheriff’s Office an additional $3.8 million to keep the city’s jail running through the end of the year, approving a funding request that included an emergency infusion of cash the agency needed to make payroll.
The measure passed unanimously after a contentious, several-hour meeting and mere minutes before the Sheriff’s Office’s payroll deadline, illustrating the deepening divide between Sheriff Marlin Gusman and city officials over the tens of millions of taxpayer dollars going toward running and reforming the jail.
“This is not the way to run any organization or any entity,” said Tommie Vassel, a certified public accountant appointed by U.S. District Judge Lance Africk to mediate budget differences between the city and sheriff. Africk is overseeing a federal consent decree that requires wholesale — and expensive — changes in the housing and treatment of inmates in New Orleans.
The latest stopgap funding sought by the Sheriff’s Office increased by more than $1 million even as Tuesday’s meeting was underway, clouding matters as council members sought to digest the changing figures. In the end, council members acquiesced to the sheriff’s request but declined to cover more than $300,000 Gusman spent recently on service vehicles, an expenditure the city had previously rejected.
“We are being told that we have to go back and spend money that we thought we weren’t going to have to spend a little while ago,” Councilman James Gray said. “That money doesn’t just come out of the sky. It comes away from someone, a pothole, a streetlight. It comes away from a playground.”
Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s administration is required by state law to fund the jail’s operation. But Landrieu has increasingly objected to what he says is Gusman’s inability to adhere to a budget.
Councilwoman Stacy Head accused the sheriff of allowing poor accounting to muddle his finances. She and several other council members called upon the Sheriff’s Office to adopt new controls to prevent future budget crises and to give city officials more information about the agency’s spending.
“When your supplies budget is running out, you stop ordering the coffee,” Councilwoman Susan Guidry said. “We need the kind of controls that stop you ahead of time from buying things you don’t have the budget to purchase.”
Gusman acknowledged the Sheriff’s Office has incurred a number of unforeseen costs this year, which he largely attributed to the recent opening of a new $150 million jail on Perdido Street. The move generated $450,000 in overtime over a two-week period as deputies worked to meet a court-imposed deadline for transferring inmates into the 1,438-bed facility.
“We don’t control our destiny in all of this,” James Williams, an attorney for Gusman, said in an interview last week. “We almost can’t turn a light switch on around here without getting approval from the monitors” of the jail reforms.
As he has many times before, the sheriff asserted Tuesday that the city’s allocation to the Sheriff’s Office this year had been “inadequate from Day 1.” The sheriff had asked the council for $66 million but received only $28.6 million in the 2015 budget, which was approved last November.
The council has given the Sheriff’s Office additional funding upon request throughout the year. The sheriff has requested a 2016 budget that exceeds by several million dollars the amount that Landrieu’s administration has proposed, a familiar situation that one council member described as “Groundhog Day.”
“The problem stems from not providing enough money in the first place,” Gusman said.
Tuesday’s meeting devolved into a shouting match at times, as council members grilled the sheriff’s attorneys and staff and questioned several aspects of the agency’s 2015 spending, including Gusman’s decisions to spend more than $300,000 on the service vehicles and more than $600,000 to settle a series of federal lawsuits.
“People looking at this right now are about to vomit, just like I am,” Jason Williams, the council president, said at one point.
Williams tried to tie the additional funding to a commitment from Gusman to remove several hundred state prisoners who are housed in the new jail, even as nearly 200 pretrial inmates have been sent to lockups in northeastern Louisiana. The sheriff would not agree to a quid pro quo, however, and reiterated his support for a re-entry program for state prisoners that he insists reduces recidivism.
“This isn’t ‘Let’s Make a Deal.’ We’re trying to get through a budget situation,” Gusman said. “I’m not going to bargain up here in front of a microphone.”
Andy Kopplin, Landrieu’s chief administrative officer, said the mayor supported the sheriff’s bid for additional funding. But he added, “I think it’s clear there’s got to be preventive steps put in place to ensure the sheriff lives within his budget.”
Follow Jim Mustian on Twitter, @JimMustian.