By Matt Davis, The Lens staff writer

Sheriff Marlin Gusman would be willing to move away from being paid a daily rate by the city per inmate, he told a City Council budget hearing this afternoon.

Gusman appears before the council this afternoon.

Mayor Mitch Landrieu hit Gusman in his proposed budget this year, allocating only $22.7 million to the sheriff, compared to Gusman’s requested $36.3 million.

The $22 million is based on paying for roughly 2,000 city inmates per day through the end of 2011, although Councilwoman Susan Guidry pointed out that new municipal court reforms along with new warrant arrest policies announced by Police Superintendent Ronal Serpas on Monday could considerably reduce the number of city inmates held in Gusman’s jail.

Gusman began this afternoon by giving a presentation telling the council that the current daily rate of $22.39 per inmate from the city is “not sufficient to meet rising costs of incarceration.”

Landrieu’s chief aide Andy Kopplin told The Lens on Friday that his office is considering doing away with the daily rate per inmate, in favor of a lump sum for the sheriff.

Gusman had threatened to sue Landrieu as recently as July if he didn’t get  an increase in the daily rate. But he appeared to stand down today when Guidry asked the sheriff if he’d accept a flat budget amount.

“Would you be willing to work with the council and administration to switch to a budget that’s based on expenses and needs rather than a body count?” Guidry asked.

Gusman assented, repeating his position that there’s nothing to suggest that he’s ever housed inmates to make money.

Guidry said she wants to move to the new payment model as soon as possible, although it’s not clear if the city will be able to do so  in 2011.

“We may not be able to do that in this budget cycle but the opportunity to work with council on charting that path forward…exists,” Kopplin said.

New Orleans’ daily rate per inmate originates from a lawsuit filed by the National Prison Project of the American Civil Liberties Union in 1969, on behalf of all prisoners at the Orleans Parish Prison, asking that the city pay the Sheriff’s Office sufficient money to maintain constitutional conditions.

An order establishing the daily rate was added in 1989 and has been amended several times since, most recently in 2003, to the current rate of $22.39 per day.

The ACLU withdrew its name from the lawsuit last year on the grounds that its original intent — to improve jail conditions — had ultimately been turned on its head by the per diem system. They say the arrangement encourages jailing more people, leading to worse conditions.

Later, Gusman said he was going to consult with his legal counsel over this year’s budget.

“We need to have more to properly run the facility,” Gusman said, in answer to a question by Council President Arnie Fielkow about whether the city is in violation of the 2003 legal agreement.

Gusman also said he’d have to wait a while before the impact of reforms on his jail numbers could be properly measured.

Guidry also raised the ongoing issue of courthouse security — Gusman threatened to withdraw his deputies from Criminal District Court if the city didn’t give him an extra $500,000 this year.

Landrieu’s office issued a statement this afternoon saying the city has agreed to pay Gusman about $35,000 a week through the end of the year.

“We want to fund things throughout an entire year and no more of this smoke and mirrors,” Guidry said.  “This is an outdated and antiquated system for paying here, and we need to do something about it.”

Guidry added that the sheriff would have lower medical expenses if the reforms help to lower the number of people arrested.

Guidry asked the sheriff if he could build a smaller jail – and need less money – if he housed fewer state prisoners. Gusman said he’d like to keep some state inmates.

“Without having some level of assistance to run the jail, it’s going to be more expensive,” Gusman said.

The state pays a higher daily rate than the city to house prisoners in Gusman’s facilities, and Gusman said the work-release program for them means they don’t cost nearly as much to house.

Gusman also said that the city wouldn’t be paying utility costs for state inmates because the Orleans Parish Law Enforcement District owns the site of a planned new jail, and not the city. Presumably, that means state inmates would all be housed in Gusman’s new building.

Councilwoman Kristin Gisleson Palmer asked what the $500,000 in “other revenues” were on Gusman’s proposed budget.

Gusman said the money was a combination of a fee collected for off-duty details,  interest income, and the $60 a month fee for take-home cars that some deputies have.

Civil-rights attorney Mary Howell said the city should quantify the number of people in Gusman’s jail who are suffering from a mental illness, substance abuse issues, or homelessness.

Gusman said he could provide that information to Guidry.

Head blasts French Market

Councilwoman Stacy Head appeared to ruffle council feathers by blasting the French Market Corporation for mismanagement this afternoon.

French Market and Upper Pontalba apartment rents are too low, according to the market’s leaders, who appeared before council without their former director, Kenneth Ferdinand, who stepped down in July over allegations about misspending.

For a decade, the market and half the apartments lining Jackson Square have contributed net proceeds in excess of $1 million to the city’s general fund, but it does not expect to do so in 2011. The market’s staff said this was because of concession and lease issues, but Head didn’t buy it.

“I think the reason is because of mismanagement, and not just concessions and leases,” Head said, asking why the apartment rents remain at 2006 levels when there are 91 people on the waiting list to get into the market.

Councilwoman Kristin Gisleson Palmer responded by suggesting that when the market gets a new director, it can make a “data-driven” decision about what to do next.

“But before we jump to any conclusions, I think it’s a good idea to look at the market analysis to make sure that the rents we are charging are market rate,” Gisleson Palmer said.

Palmer pointed out that there are 7.8 million visitors to the market each year, and said a new director might decide that there ought to be more restrooms in the market, for example.

Head responded.

“Public toilets is a legitimate public function, but a flea market without generating property taxes, I’m not so sure, is,” Head said.

That prompted Councilwoman Cynthia Hedge-Morrell to shake her head and walk out of the council chamber. She returned five minutes later, once Head was done grilling the market staff.

Head probed why the French Market has 28 civil-service employees, and then acknowledged that the market isn’t in her district. She encouraged Palmer to “take a look and push this issue.”

Palmer gave a testy response.

“Council member, that’s exactly what the new board has requested,” Palmer said.