10.11.10 Story updated at end with mayor’s comment.
Original post: Sheriff Marlin Gusman has threatened to cut court hours and pull security services from the Orleans Parish Criminal District Court unless the city pays him an extra $500,000 by Oct. 25.
Gusman took his stand in letter Wednesday to Mayor Mitch Landrieu. Without it, he will “be forced to curtail the hours of operation of the courts in an attempt to reduce the funding shortfall,” Gusman wrote.
Gusman pointed out that the sheriff is obligated under state law to provide security for his inmates in the courtrooms. But there’s an ongoing struggle between his office and the city as to whether the sheriff is also responsible for providing security in the courthouse lobby, by providing personnel to run a metal detector at the front door. Without the extra money, the sheriff has threatened to “eliminate” all building security by Oct. 25.
“If the sheriff is trying to get the attention of the city and City Council, I am certain this letter will get it,” Loyola University law professor Dane Ciolino said. “Many sections there in Criminal District Court are already facing significant docket backlogs, and this situation will make a bad situation worse.”
A 2003 federal court agreement between Gusman and the city limited the amount the city can pay the sheriff for courthouse security to $2.4 million a year, at least until 2005. But the sheriff estimates that the actual cost of that security in 20010 will be $3.25 million, and asked Deputy Mayor Andy Kopplin to “reimburse the Sheriff’s Office for actual cost of Court services” in a letter dated July 30. Gusman estimates his security services will cost $3.9 million next year.
This isn’t the first time Gusman has threatened to stop providing deputies to provide weapons screens at the courthouse over budget concerns. The city paid him a $900,000 emergency appropriation in August 2009 after he did the same thing.
“The judges wanted us to understand that [not giving the sheriff this money] would literally shut down criminal court,” City Council member Cynthia Hedge-Morrell said at the time. “It’s absolutely necessary that we get some relief to him.”
Hedge-Morrell encouraged the City Council to get ahead of the problem for 2010 by trying to identify a dedicated source of revenue to pay for courthouse security, such as parking meter fees. Watch a video clip of her speech at the hearing here:
But this year, the cupboards may be barer, with city council struggling to fill a $79 million budget hole.
And Gusman has already threatened to take the city to federal court if it doesn’t give him a 28 percent budget increase for 2011.
Longtime observers of the relationship between the city and the sheriff’s office say the sheriff may have a point, but that the best way to resolve the situation is to sit down and talk things over.
“[Former sheriff] Charles Foti threatened the same thing, and the sheriff brings up a legitimate issue,” said former Chief Judge of Criminal District Court Calvin Johnson. “Is it his responsibility to provide security at the front door of the courthouse building?”
Johnson suggests that the sheriff talk with the city and judges from Criminal District Court to reach an agreement on the issue. The city owns the courthouse at Tulane and Broad and is responsible for its operation and maintenance.
“I know some of my former brothers at the courthouse might not like to hear this,” Johnson said, “but it may be that the judges contribute something, and the sheriff contributes something, and the city contributes something.”
The Lens called council members this afternoon seeking comment, but none of them returned our inquiries apart from Stacy Head, whose office declined comment.
District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro and Chief Public Defender Derwyn Bunton, whose attorneys would be affected by shorter court hours, declined to discuss the issue publicly.
“I have had ongoing discussions with the Mayor’s office regarding the lack of funding for security services at the Criminal District Court building,” Gusman wrote, in a statement emailed to The Lens and our reporting partners at Fox8 News.
“I will continue to work directly with Mayor Landrieu and court officials to pursue a solution that will provide adequate, consistent funding for these important services,” Gusman continued. “That being said, the City must move quickly to address this funding shortfall to ensure that all security services continue uninterrupted.
Landrieu’s office responded late Friday with a statement:
“We don’t understand why the previous administration budgeted some departments and agencies for only part of the year, and we don’t understand why some departments and agencies spent their budgets as if the fiscal year ended in October,” the statement read. “The fiscal year ends December 31st. This City has faced a projected $80 million gap between revenues and expenditures in 2010. We have reduced that gap nearly in full while prioritizing public safety. We will continue to work with the Sheriff to resolve these budgetary issues.”