Inmate advocates want Gusman held in contempt over fire safety shortfalls at OPP _lowres

Orleans Parish Sheriff Marlin Gusman

Seeking to defray the cost of running Orleans Parish Prison, Sheriff Marlin Gusman signed a resolution Monday asking voters this fall to shift millions of dollars in property tax revenue to help his cash-strapped office pay for operating expenses at a time of expensive jail reforms ordered by a federal judge.

At a brief meeting of the parish’s Law Enforcement District, Gusman stressed that the measure would maintain the current tax rate of 2.9 mills and would not amount to a tax hike. It would, however, allow the tax, currently earmarked for capital expenditures such as construction to be applied more broadly to the “operation, maintenance and upkeep” of the jail and its “related facilities,” according to the resolution.

Some of the millage still would be applied toward paying off general-obligation bonds, but officials anticipate the amount needed for capital debt will decline appreciably in the coming years. The sheriff is asking voters to allow him to use that difference to run the jail.

The Law Enforcement District, an obscure taxing entity that allows the Sheriff’s Office to issue bonds for buildings and equipment, may levy up to 10 mills under current law, but Gusman’s proposal would cap the tax at 2.9 mills through 2024. The 2.9-mill rate is expected to generate $9 million next year — $5 million of which would be applied to operating expenses if voters approve the measure.

“The bottom line, so to speak, is that this would not be an increase in the current millage,” Gusman said.

The measure will be placed on the Nov. 4 ballot.

The sheriff did not take any questions after the district’s seven-minute meeting. But his agency’s bond counsel, Grant Schlueter, said the measure would have “no impact” on funding that other criminal justice agencies have received from the district. “This is just purely operating funds,” he said.

The Sheriff’s Office has said the driving force of the tax measure is to help pay for operating a new $145 million jail and kitchen building, and they have not directly invoked the federal consent decree signed last year that mandated systemic changes at OPP. But the proposal comes as the Sheriff’s Office is trying to hire hundreds of new employees to meet the requirements of that document, and the sheriff has been tussling for months with city officials over funding for its implementation. State law requires the city to pay for the care of its inmates.

The Sheriff’s Office issued a news release last week that quoted Mayor Mitch Landrieu as offering full support of Gusman’s tax proposal. “We are working with the sheriff to create funding solutions like this one that will not increase taxes for the citizens of New Orleans,” Landrieu said in the release.

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