New Iberia residents on Saturday will choose whether to give themselves something people in most similar-size cities take for granted: a police department.
Mayor Freddie DeCourt says a half-cent sales tax on the Oct. 14 ballot is the only way to make it happen, and the measure has sparked disagreements throughout the city.
Supporters see it as necessary for economic development, and as a way to stem rising crime. Opponents include conservative business leaders who don’t want a new tax, especially since when city residents already pay a one-cent sales tax for public safety and infrastructure.
The tax has also drawn opposition from some black residents who say they suspect the department will function as a patronage machine and fear it will lead to a repeat of the abuses they experienced with the last New Iberia Police Department. The city disbanded the department in 2004 as a cost-saving measure.
Switching out the Sheriff’s Office with a new city force amounts to a “change of the face, same corruption,” said Kevin Broussard, a vocal opponent of the measure and longtime resident of the city’s West End neighborhood, which is predominantly poor and African-American.
The disagreements have led organizations such as the Greater Iberia Chamber of Commerce and PUSH, a coalition of faith leaders, to remain officially neutral.
“There are people on both sides of the fence on this, and they are passionate both ways,” said Barry Guillote, who owns owns nine commercial and residential buildings in New Iberia, including Mulligan’s Old Irish Pub, where he was tending bar on Monday afternoon.
Guillote said he sees arguments on both sides, but didn’t want to opine directly because his tenants – numbering about 70 – hold differing views.
The Iberia Parish Sheriff’s Office receives almost all of the $6.4 million annual proceeds of the existing sales tax, under the latest of a series of city contracts to provide law-enforcement services since the old police department was eliminated.
DeCourt wants to end those contracts, and combine the new tax — expected to bring in about $3 million annually — with the old one to pay for a new police department with a $7.8 million annual budget.
The city would borrow $1.6 million for start-up expenses. The fire department would receive $400,000 from the new tax, leaving more than half a million dollars from the remainder of both taxes to pay for drainage, parks and city building maintenance.
The new police department would consist of approximately 80 full-time staff, including 28 regular-duty officers and another 14 narcotics officers and detectives. The chief would receive a salary of $75,000, while salaries for officers, detectives, sergeants and lieutenants would be less than $40,000.
Some see excess in DeCourt’s proposal. Joe LeBlanc, a friend of Broussard’s and fellow outspoken opponent, questioned the need for so many new employees, given the Sheriff’s Office’s present staffing level. He also questioned the need for $3 million in new tax revenue when half that amount, combined with the existing tax, would cover DeCourt’s proposed budget for the police department.
“I smell a sneaky snake,” said LeBlanc, who has run unsuccessfully for sheriff several times.
Broussard and LeBlanc say they suspect that DeCourt is reserving the chief position for a politically connected ally. DeCourt said in an interview he will be “taking applications,” repeating a line he used in an Oct. 4 community meeting in the West End. Hiring would follow an established procedure, DeCourt said.
But he acknowledged having discussions with interested candidates.
“I’d be stupid if I didn’t feel the waters,” DeCourt said. “There are people out there, people I trust who have been a big help in this.”
Mayor Pro-Tem Dan Doerle said the force is too big for the budget DeCourt proposes, and that most staff will make too little to stick around. He also objects to borrowing money for start-up costs. Doerle, who owns a heating and cooling business, is not opposed to a tax, unlike some other business owners. In fact, he said, he would support the measure if it asked for twice as much.
“As a business person, I look at numbers, not personalities, and I just think the numbers are not right for what we want to do,” he said.
The city will have forked over $67.3 million to the Sheriff’s Office over 14 years when the current contract expires in June, according to The Advocate’s review of all five versions of the contract. The annual payment to the Sheriff’s Office remained steady at $3 million for the first five years, but amount has more than doubled with three increases since the current sheriff, Louis Ackal, took office in 2008.
“It’s hard to negotiate when you’re the city and you have no real negotiating power,” said District Attorney Bo Duhe, who supports the tax measure. “If the city was unable to negotiate a contract with the sheriff that was adequate, what is the alternative? It’s not like you can go from Lowe’s to Home Depot.”
The current payment of $6.3 million is nearly 30 percent of the Sheriff’s Office annual revenue, according to its most recent audit report. Another 43 percent comes from parish-wide sales and property taxes.
DeCourt said Ackal sought another increase, to $8 million, when negotiating a year-long extension last winter, soon after DeCourt took office. The sheriff provided little justification, DeCourt said, and the two sides agreed to maintain the current level through June 2018.
Capt. Wendell Rayborn, a spokesman for Ackal, maintains the Sheriff’s Office still isn’t receiving enough to cover its expenses, which include personnel such as investigators, clerical officers and other support staff, along with retirement, medical, legal and liability insurance costs.
“You don’t just throw 10 deputies to the street and that’s all it takes to provide law enforcement. It takes a lot of support services also,” Rayborn said. “We do believe we are losing money on it.”
Rayborn said he could not provide specific information concerning the Sheriff’s Office’s losses, including the basis for the current contract amount, because a ransom-ware attack in August wiped out the office’s computers. He said it could take months to recover that information.
The 2010 version of the contract stipulated automatic four-year renewal if Ackal won reelection two years later, which he did. Asked why Ackal secured what amounted to a six-year extension on a money-losing contract, Rayborn said there were no plans at that time to bring back a city force.
“The sheriff is not going to leave the people of New Iberia or any other city unprotected,” he said.
Ackal supports New Iberia transitioning to a city police force because the municipality is consuming most of the Sheriff’s Office’s manpower, Rayborn said, and Ackal wants to refocus attention to other parts of the parish. Ackal does not, however, support adopting a tax to pay for a new city police force, Rayborn said.
“His only statement on the subject is he does not support a tax. Never has supported any type of tax,” said Rayborn, who later clarified he was referring to new taxes.
Asked how Ackal thinks the city ought to pay for a new force, Rayborn replied “that’s the mayor’s vision, not the sheriff’s vision.”
Lack of oversight
DeCourt said his communication with Ackal is limited, and that he and City Council members have no input into patrols. The contract requires 10 deputies on duty within the city at all times, as well as a criminal investigative unit, crime lab services and juvenile and narcotics divisions. Quarterly analyses related to these units’ workloads, as well as regular reports on crime-prevention programs, are also required.
DeCourt said he receives an emailed shift assignment from the Sheriff’s Office that lists the deputies on duty, but not much else.
“If there is a shooting that goes down I will hear about the shooting. That’s really probably the only thing that I’ll get,” DeCourt said. “The sheriff and I don’t talk that often. I talk to his people.”
Rayborn said the Sheriff’s Office tries to incorporate any feedback other officials provide, but he agreed that other officials “can’t control what the sheriff does.”
Most agree the city needs more control over law enforcement, whether that means a new arrangement with the Sheriff’s Office or a transition to a city force.
Broussard said the old police department conducted mass arrests on petty charges, breaking apart families and contributing to present-day crime. Instead of reverting back to a city force, Broussard said city leaders should insist on being included in the sheriff’s operations. They don’t, he said, because “everyone is afraid of him.”
“All the old things that didn’t work, let’s not go back to them,” Broussard said, referring to the old city force. “All we need is for our so-called leaders to tell the sheriff, ‘Hey you are going to do your job.’”
Grievances against law enforcement have not abated under the outsource model. Ackal was acquitted on federal civil charges last year, even though 10 of his deputies pleaded guilty to such charges, claiming he encouraged abuse of inmates and suspects. Ackal’s lawyers argued he had no knowledge of his deputies’ behavior.
Joby Gorunson, who owns rental properties and a photography business, walked into Mulligan’s as the owner spoke with a reporter about the tax measure. Gorunson said he supports it because he thinks a city of 30,000 should have its own police force. He also questioned Ackal’s fitness to administer law enforcement in New Iberia, given his claim of ignorance at his trial.
“If you have that many employees that are party to that, and you have no knowledge of it, it shows there is a huge lack of competence there,” Gorunson said. “It seems like a police department has to answer to somebody. Who does Ackal answer to? I don’t know.”