By Matt Davis, The Lens staff writer |

Sheriff Marlin Gusman used a 10-minute meeting of his little-scrutinized but extremely powerful law enforcement district this morning to draw attention to the city’s failure to take advantage of millions of dollars for capital projects that have sat dormant in the district’s fund for more than a decade.

This is a matter that The Lens first brought to the public’s attention some months ago.

Gusman and his staff drew attention to projects that have stagnated even though the money has been set aside for them. The city has even left $5 million in renovation funds in the district fund, which could be used to renovate the coroner’s office — half of which was destroyed in a fire this spring.

“Some of these projects are pretty high profile,” Gusman said.

Law Enforcement District Meeting: Sheriff Gusman (left), Chief Deputy Bill Short, and Col. Julie Langham, the administrator of the district. Photo by Matt Davis.

Among other things, the taxpayer-funded New Orleans Law Enforcement District effectively works as Orleans Parish Sheriff Marlin Gusman’s piggy bank for construction projects such as his planned new jail.

The governing body of the district has one member: Gusman.

But the district also finances projects for other criminal-justice operations in New Orleans. For instance, millions of dollars are also sitting in the district’s coffers for things such as courthouse repairs, an addition to the district attorney’s building, and the renovation of the coroner’s office.

District administrator Col. Julie Langham said she has asked the coroner’s office multiple times for a schedule of when it might spend the $5 million it has for the renovation, but that she has heard nothing back.

“We’re simply awaiting the city’s projects to proceed,” Langham said.

Coroner Frank Minyard’s office caught fire this spring and was halfway destroyed, but Minyard told The Times-Picayune that he would not push Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s administration for money to rebuild it.

“I don’t want to add to Mayor Landrieu’s burden,” Minyard told the paper. “I never want to say ‘We need more money.’ I don’t want to say that.”

Minyard was unavailable for comment this morning.

Gusman’s chief deputy, Bill Short, brought up the subject of the unspent money after Gusman had voted to approve the only item on the district’s agenda: A resolution approving the issuance of up to $5 million in revenue anticipation notes through the State Bond Commission, for Gusman to pay for a portion of his operating expenses.

Last year the district approved $6 million in revenue anticipation notes, but Gusman only drew down $3.98 million at 2.5 percent interest through the Regions Bank, said attorney C. Grant Schlueter with bond attorneys Foley & Judell. This year, the sheriff expects to draw down the same amount.

In 2010, Gusman told the State Bond Commission that an increase in jail capacity through the addition of 400 temporary beds would mean he would be able to pay off the notes without a problem. He later told reporters that the temporary beds would not add to the overall jail capacity, before reversing his position.

A representative from Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s office of Intergovernmental Affairs and a staffer from Councilwoman Susan Guidry’s office also attended this morning’s meeting to take notes, but made no comments.

A representative of the New Orleans Coalition for Open Governance, a group of which The Lens is a member, also videotaped the meeting. The resulting video is posted on Youtube.