Orleans Parish Sheriff Marlin Gusman’s office has burned through nearly its entire $28.6 million appropriation for the year with six more months to go, a situation that drew denunciations and accusations of opaque and profligate spending policies from city officials on Thursday even as they agreed to foot the bill for a temporary bailout to keep Orleans Parish Prison open.
Both the City Council and Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s administration couched the $7.1 million infusion they’ll be pumping into the jail as a move made under duress and without the information they need to determine whether money is being spent properly — or even if the situation is as dire as Gusman claims.
At the same time, the spending at the jail is actually below projections Gusman made last fall, when the City Council approved a budget for his office that was less than half the amount he had requested.
The new funding is expected to be just the first of several more payments needed to run OPP; it is estimated to keep the jail open for only about a month and a half.
However, city officials drew a line in the sand at the council meeting, pledging not to turn over another dime until Gusman opens his books for the city to inspect or until U.S. District Judge Lance Africk, who is overseeing a federal consent decree for the overhaul of OPP, forces their hand.
“I’m not going to do it again,” said Councilwoman Stacy Head, chairwoman of the council’s Budget Committee. “At that point, I think it’s up to the judge to seize our assets. I don’t know what I’m giving this money for, and I don’t like to vote that way.”
Though punctuated with theatrical accusations and descriptions of the situation — council members referred to the position the city finds itself in as “bizarro world” and “a freak show” — most of the discussion rehashed ongoing grievances the city has leveled at the Sheriff’s Office over its fiscal management of the jail.
The council eventually voted 6-1 in favor of approving the additional money. Councilwoman LaToya Cantrell said she could not vote for the money without better information on how Gusman has spent the millions he already has gone through this year. Most of the other members made clear they were voting in favor of the measure because they felt they had no choice.
Thursday’s discussion was only the most recent airing of the long-standing arguments between the Sheriff’s Office and city officials, and it touched on many of the same topics that have previously been central to those debates.
There did not appear to be any representatives of the Sheriff’s Office at Thursday’s meeting, and Philip Stelly, Gusman’s spokesman, did not return calls requesting comment.
City Chief Administrative Officer Andy Kopplin accused Gusman of wanton spending at the jail, highlighting a more than $15 million-a-year contract between the Sheriff’s Office and Correct Care Solutions, the firm Gusman hired to provide medical care to inmates.
Kopplin focused on provisions in that contract that allowed the company to be paid in full for five months before it was fully staffed, something the council has previously criticized and which prompted Head to make reference to “phantom employees.”
A second major point of contention is the roughly 440 inmates housed in OPP for the state Department of Corrections, each of whom costs the city $67.40 a day even after the state payment of $26.39 a day for housing the inmates is taken into account. That’s almost a quarter of the population at OPP.
“We’re subsidizing Gov. (Bobby) Jindal,” Head said.
Overarching the entire discussion was the city’s request for the Sheriff’s Office to turn over documents proving its expenses. That demand was backed up by Africk earlier this month, though the Sheriff’s Office has not turned over any documents yet, Kopplin said.
Being able to comb through the jail’s financial information is critical to determining whether it is being run properly and the city is getting what it pays for, Kopplin said, citing the need for money for other priorities in the city, including recreation and street repairs, and the history of cuts and tight budgets the city has experienced in recent years.
“We held off on buying cars and equipment in the city for several years,” Kopplin said. “Every penny we pinch over here (at City Hall) ought to be pinched just as tightly at agencies where we provide funding.”
That the Sheriff’s Office is running out of money halfway through the year is less than surprising, however.
Gusman had called for a $66 million budget for the jail for this year. City Council members balked at that figure, the medical care contract specifically and contracting practices at the jail more generally as they signed onto the Landrieu administration’s recommendation for a $28 million budget for 2015.
The council, however, ultimately has little power to hold the Sheriff’s Office to any limits.
The state constitution gives sheriff’s offices the ultimate decision-making power over their jails while requiring parish governments — or, in the case of New Orleans, the city — to fund them. Africk has indicated that he is willing to force the city to cover all of Gusman’s costs.
Councilman James Gray was the only voice to speak in Gusman’s defense. While agreeing that the Sheriff’s Office should be transparent with its spending, Gray speculated that a fuller report would show the current spending level is justified.
Both Gray and other council members suggested that the underlying problem is the high rate of incarceration in the city.
“I think we should get the information from the sheriff, I think we will get the information from the sheriff, and I think when we do we’re going to see we’re still in a big, big mess,” Gray said.
Follow Jeff Adelson on Twitter, @jadelson.