A narrow majority of voters approve a proposition that would help Sheriff Marlin Gusman pay for a series of costly, court-ordered reforms at Orleans Parish Prison, but the race remains far too early to call.
With just 131 of 366 precincts reporting, 51 percent of voters were in favor of the tax, while about 49 percent had cast ballots against it.
The 10-year property tax, expected to generate $9 million a year, would not increase the existing millage rate levied by the Orleans Parish Law Enforcement District but afford Gusman more far freedom in how the proceeds are spent. The revenue previously had been earmarked to pay off bonds for capital projects, but the ballot would allow the sheriff to use the money to pay for a series of costs related to a consent decree signed with the U.S. Justice Department last year that requires an overhaul of the jail, including salaries for new deputies and improved medical and mental health care for inmates.
Because the city is bound by state law to pay for inmate care, the proposition drew the full-throated support of both Gusman and Mayor Mitch Landrieu, elected officials who have clashed publicly over how to best implement the jail reforms.
Landrieu’s administration views the sheriff’s consent decree, expected to cost tens of millions of dollars over the next several years, as one of the greatest liabilities to the city’s newly stabilized coffers. Gusman inked a contract last month worth more than $15 million a year with an outside firm, Correct Care Solutions, to provide medical and mental health care to inmates.
The ballot measure was also backed by the Bureau of Governmental Research, a nonpartisan research organization, that has otherwise been skeptical of the Law Enforcement District, a taxing entity controlled wholly by the sheriff. The group released a report concluding that “additional revenue is needed to implement court-ordered reforms at the Parish Prison,” adding the oversight of U.S. District Judge Lance Africk, who ordered the jail reforms, “provides greater confidence that the sheriff will spend the funds appropriately.”
The Law Enforcement District, which Gusman uses to issue bonds, already levies a 2.9-mill property tax dedicated to servicing bonds that voters authorized in 2008. That millage rate, set each year at the level needed to cover principal and interest payments, had been projected to decline in coming years as the bonds are retired. So voters, in approving the property tax proposition, essentially forewent a tax decrease in the coming years. Homeowners with a homestead-exempt property valued at $200,000 will still owe $36.25 a year under the 2.9-mill property tax, according to the Bureau of Governmental Research.
“The taxpayer won’t see it at all,” Gusman said in a recent interview. “It’s meant to be flexible while at the same time limiting it to Sheriff’s Office funding.”
Landrieu had warned that a failure to pass the proposition would have dire consequences for the city, which he said would have to make “draconian” cuts to services and the general fund to foot the bill for jail expenses triggered by the consent decree. The mayor said in a recent interview that he has been working with the Federal Emergency Management Agency “to give us more money than they wanted to give us to rebuild (Katrina-damaged) things in New Orleans that they undervalued before.”
He said the city had reached an agreement with FEMA in which the agency would give the city “enough capital money to actually go in and pay for” several projects now being financed by Law Enforcement District bonds, allowing the sheriff to use the property tax proceeds to pay for jail operations. “We think we’ve killed two birds with one stone by (paying for) the capital (projects) on the FEMA side,” Landrieu said, “and giving the sheriff the money to do the medical and mental health (reforms) that the judge is almost certainly going to tell us to do.”
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