New Orleans officials have been diligently working behind the scenes to end for next year the Orleans Parish Sheriff Office’s longtime per-prisoner budgeting system, and several said publicly this week that they’re optimistic a change is at hand.
But before they can work on the 2013 budget, Sheriff Marlin Gusman said he needs more money to make it through this year, he told City Council members Wednesday.
This is the third year running that the City Council and administration have said they want to change how the Sheriff’s Office is paid for prisoners. The city now pays $22.39 a day for every prisoner being held on local charges. Gusman, Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s administration and City Council members have all said they’d prefer to give the Sheriff’s Office a lump sum, as is done with most other agencies financed by the city.
Even before they can begin negotiating what a fair amount would be, though, a federal judge would have to agree to such a change. That’s because the per-prisoner payment system was devised as a result of a federal court agreement that stretches back decades.
The issue was raised again when Councilwoman Susan Guidry convened the third and final combined Criminal Justice and Budget Committee hearings at City Hall.
Gusman provided grim details of his finances for 2012. He said his budget is being strained by higher food costs, repairs on jail buildings owned by the city, maintenance, and pension costs.
Gusman did not specify how much more money he needs. The city budgeted $22.9 million for Gusman this year.
But Gusman is holding fewer prisioners, and as a result, he will get less than that, Chief Administrative Officer Andy Kopplin said on Wednesday, and Gusman is already feeling the pinch.
In a letter to the council dated Aug. 9, Gusman cited a loss of revenue that came with the departure of all federal inmates and about 500 state Department of Corrections inmates from his facilities.
Gusman is paid a daily rate of $24.39 for state inmates and $43 for federal prisoners.
Such fluctuations make it more important to move beyond the per-prisoner budget, say its critics. Their chief complaint is that the system provides an incentive for Gusman to lock up as many people as possible.
Gusman counters that he’s not responsible for who is brought to his facility.
Guidry has been the driving force behind ending the current financing structure, frequently called the per diem system.
“We’ve all met about this,” she said, insisting the financing system would change for 2013.
Kopplin added that he is “optimistic that we can move away from the per diem to a fixed budget” next year.
Others in the city administration are hedging a bit.
“We largely support moving away from the current per diem structure, which is part of an existing consent decree between the City and the Sheriff and which requires a judge’s order before changes to the per diem system can be made,” Landrieu spokesman Ryan Berni said recently.
On Wednesday, city Budget Director Cary Grant reiterated Berni’s point about the funding being tied to a federal consent decree.
Guidry told Grant that she was going to “walk hand in hand with him to Federal Court” to get a judge to undo the decree. Councilwoman Jackie Clarkson said that she would grab Grant by his other hand and go for the walk, too.
Gusman reminded Guidry that he’s provided a flat-fee budget to the city in years past. Guidry acknowledged that, but she said they tended to be rather outsized.
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In another development from Wednesday’s budget meeting, Gusman said the city is still not fully funding his electronic monitoring program.
The program offers ankle-bracelets to juvenile offenders and low-risk defendants awaiting trial, as an alternative to incarceration.
A 2010 cooperative-endeavor agreement between the city and Gusman capped his monthly payments at $50,000, or 600,000 a year. But the council provided him with $700,000 this year for the popular if controversial program, and city officials told The Lens in July that it would retroactively amend the agreement to accommodate the additional payments. The agreement runs through 2015.
“We’re working on a revised CEA that will fully allow him to expend the remaining funds,” Kopplin assured the council.
Later in the meeting, Juvenile Court officials told Guidry that an additional $200,000 that the council had previously insisted was earmarked for electronic monitoring, had instead been used to offset a budget shortfall that ended up totaling about $142,000.
Juvenile Court Judge Tracey Flemings-Davillier and the council members said they were all “heartbroken” over an unwelcome development at the proposed new juvenile justice center to replace the Youth Study Center in Gentilly.
The original plan for the building, funded by FEMA, was to include a half-dozen courts, space for the District Attorney, and space for Juvenile Regional Services, a non-profit legal advocate that is essentially the public defender for youth offenders.
Guidry said she had learned that over the past two weeks, Juvenile Regional Services had been informed that it would have to lease space in the new building, and that the space allotted for the agency is greatly diminished.
“There was a concern all along that there wasn’t enough space for all services,” said Councilwoman Cynthia Hedge-Morrell. She argued that since the council had to approve the original plans for the new facility, “the new plan has to be approved by the council.”
Guidry said the council agreed to build the new facility on the condition that Juvenile Regional Services would be there.
Grant said no decision has been made concerning the space for Juvenile Regional Services, or whether it would have to pay rent.
The New Orleans Police Department also made a budget presentation to the council on Wednesday.
Much of the discussion concerned the federal consent decree that the department has entered into with the U.S. Department of Justice.
Police Superintendent Ronal Serpas told the committee that he’s facing as much as $900,000 in annual costs for new personnel mandated under the decree.
Serpas also said he is trying to expedite promotions and raises for his officers.
Hedge-Morrell noted that other consent decrees around the country afforded a pay increase for officers who are “asked to do more,” and warned that officers’ needed to continue to be able to supplement their income with paid details, which the Department of Justice had famously described as the “aorta of corruption” at NOPD.
Hedge-Morrell said she saw a “drastic reduction” in officers’ ability to get paid detail work, and that police officers with families would especially bear the burden. She noted that beat cops in New Orleans are “seriously underpaid given the daily dangers and challenges.”
One of Hedge-Morrell’s sons is a New Orleans police officer.
Serpas said the new paid detail system hammered out with the feds would be more “transparent, certain, and clear” for all officers. He added that it would also be a fairer system because the decree mandates that opportunities for paid details be posted and available to all officers.
The City Attorney’s office was also part of Wednesday’s budget hearing. Most of the questions it faced had to do with traffic-court issues.
Guidry cited a 2011 city Inspector General’s report that criticized Traffic Court for a conviction rate of less than 33 percent.
She said moving violations are routinely knocked down to non-moving violations, but the city lawyers told her that even when they let drivers plead to lower offenses, the fines they paid were the same as if they’d been convicted on the moving violation.
“As a matter of policy we do not plead-down all tickets,” City Attorney Richard Cortizas said.