Despite widespread support for the measure by local elected leaders, Orleans Parish voters Tuesday rejected a property tax proposition that would have helped Sheriff Marlin Gusman pay for a series of costly, court-mandated reforms at Orleans Parish Prison. The result is likely to leave city leaders scrambling for other means of paying for the jail improvements.
With all precincts reporting, just 47 percent of voters favored the tax.
The 10-year property tax, which would have generated about $9 million a year, would not have increased the existing millage rate levied by the Orleans Parish Law Enforcement District — the name under which Gusman’s office levies taxes — but would have afforded Gusman far more freedom in how the proceeds are spent.
Because of Tuesday’s result, the revenue will remain earmarked to pay off bonds for capital projects. The defeated proposal would have allowed the sheriff to use the money to pay for a variety of costs related to a consent decree signed with the U.S. Justice Department last year that requires an overhaul of the jail, including higher 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, even though they have clashed repeatedly 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 threats to the city’s solvency.
Gusman, for instance, signed 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.
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 ballot measure had even been endorsed by the Bureau of Governmental Research, a nonpartisan research organization that otherwise has been skeptical of the Law Enforcement District, a taxing entity controlled wholly by the sheriff.
The Law Enforcement District, which Gusman uses to issue bonds, 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, is projected to decline in coming years as the bonds are retired.