Update, Jun 30: This story has been corrected in several places related to the budget for the Public Defender’s Office. See corrections in italics.

By Matt Davis, The Lens staff writer |

“For decades our city has justified its collective reluctance to change through the mantra of ‘we’re different here’,” Councilwoman Susan Guidry said, opening the second joint meeting of the council’s Criminal Justice and Budget committees this afternoon.

And so began a hearing during which Guidry expressed optimism about changes being made to the system, but which raised more questions than it answered when it comes to openness around budgeting for criminal justice agencies in New Orleans.

The idea of today’s hearing, the second of three, was for the council to be able to hold criminal justice agencies accountable for how they are spending taxpayer money, midway through the year – and well before the 2012 budget is finalized on Dec. 1. Councilman-at-large Arnie Fielkow also has asked other council members to hold similar hearings but encountered some reluctance.

Guidry asked each agency that came before the joint committee meeting this afternoon whether they are subject to the Louisiana Local Government Budget Act, a law about budget openness, which The Lens dusted off in an investigation last week.

The Sheriff’s Office and the Public Defender’s Office said they were. But Chief Judge Terry Alarcon of Criminal District Court said he wasn’t sure. He had initially thought the court met its obligations by reporting its budget to the Supreme Court, he said. But that hearing does not in fact meet the requirements of the law, and Alarcon admitted that he could have been wrong over the years.

“I’m going to have to address it. I’m going to look at it personally,” Alarcon said. “I have no problem, if we have not done something that we should have done until now, then we will change it if we get a legal opinion. Quite frankly I don’t have an answer for you.”

Today’s hearing was dominated by heated exchanges about budgets and policies at the Sheriff’s Office, and it overran: Clerk of Criminal District Court Arthur Morrell got shunted to next week, and he will now appear at a third hearing on July 6 along with District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro and Municipal Court Chief Judge Paul Sens.

Sheriff evades detailed questions on budget, immigration holds

Orleans Parish Sheriff Marlin Gusman began the hearing like a broken record, reiterating his threat to sue the city if it doesn’t increase the rate it pays him per day, per inmate.

It’s a threat Gusman has made repeatedly over recent years without following through on it, despite telling the council’s Budget Committee in November that he was open to negotiation about the way he is paid.

Negotiations about the daily rate per inmate did not appear imminent this afternoon, although Gusman conceded that he would “appreciate having a budget that is reasonable, and it doesn’t have to be based on a per diem,” when pushed on the idea by Fielkow.

Guidry said she is hoping to move away from the daily rate in 2012.

The 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.

The ACLU withdrew from the lawsuit in 2009, saying the arrangement now gives a perverse incentive to Gusman to hold more prisoners. The Inspector General’s Office recently criticized the arrangement, along with James Austin, a consultant hired by Mayor Mitch Landrieu to probe the funding of Gusman’s jail.

Fielkow and Guidry also pushed Gusman, asking why Gusman seems to feel compelled to detain federal immigration inmates, and asking how much the city is paying for those inmates to be held.

Gusman ultimately declined comment, citing ongoing litigation related to the policy. But he did hit back at Fielkow after being pushed for more details.

“You’re making it sound like I’m holding people unlawfully, and I’m not,” Gusman said. “And we’re not holding anyone that we’re not getting compensated for, period.”

Fielkow and Guidry asked Gusman to provide documentation showing whether or not the city is paying for immigration holds.

Gusman drew flack from the crowd.

“This is costing the city hundreds, if not thousands of dollars, and the policy can be discussed publicly despite ongoing litigation,” said Jacinta Gonzalez, with the Congress of Day Laborers.

Guidry also grilled Gusman on why his 2011 budget projected a $4 million deficit. But Gusman again was evasive, saying only that his department is attempting to fill the gap, and asking the city again for more money.

“We’re doing everything we can to cut costs, and then we’re going to be at a point where we can’t do any more,” Gusman said. “We’ve been cutting and reducing our workforce and trying to do everything that we can to get that gap narrowed.”

Guidry also asked Gusman why he is projecting a $2.5 million deficit in his “fund balance” at the end of the year; this account is generally a rainy-day fund that agencies keep in reserve for emergencies. And she asked why there is a projected $3 million overrun in his administrative and records services this year.

Gusman responded that he would have to sue the city if it didn’t give him more money to fill the $2.5 million deficit, but that he is “trying to fill it, any way we can.” He said it is possible that the $3 million administrative overrun could be related to his new electronic monitoring program, which the city is funding separately, but said he’d have to look into the details.

Guidry said she wanted the Budget Committee to track performance measures to understand how efficiently the Sheriff’s Office is doing its work.

Public Defender’s Office seeks 100% increase in city money next year

The Public Defender’s Office will get $500,000 less from the state this year than it did last year, said Luceia LeDoux, the director of public safety and governmental oversight grants for Baptist Community Ministries.

Correction, June 30: LeDoux was appearing in her capacity as chairwoman of the Budget Committee for the Louisiana Public Defender Board, and not in connection with her role at BCM. Also, the state cut its statewide allocation by $500,000, not its allocation to the Orleans Public Defender’s Office.

As a result, the office will seek an approximate doubling of its $500,000 existing city provision, Chief Public Defender Derwyn Bunton said.

Correction: The office’s city budget allocation is $750,000, not $500,000.

Bunton also made a veiled reference to purchases made by one judges in Criminal District Court, through the court’s judicial expense fund.

“It’s well in line with other agencies in terms of what their ask is,” Bunton said. “We’re not trying to buy a bunch of leather chairs and vanities in our office, although I’d love one.”

The office also cut its leadership salaries by 5 percent last year.

Bunton said the city’s courts except Municipal Court are now paying his office the appropriate fees, and that his office has dropped a lawsuit related to their collection.

Clarification: Bunton’s office was one of three plaintiffs in a lawsuit filed by the Louisiana Public Defender Board.

Rise in jury trials could balloon Criminal District Court budget

An increase in jury trials has placed pressures on the Criminal District Court budget, said Chief Judge Alarcon. The court still lacks hot water, adequate restroom facilities and the “basic necessities for jurors,” Alarcon said. “Tulane and Broad has always been the stepchild in terms of buildings in this city.”

On the other hand, the city has been sitting on $10 million for courthouse repairs since 2000. Guidry pressed Alarcon on this point.

“So why hasn’t it been used for the renovations?” Guidry asked.

Alarcon said the money is dedicated to create two new courtrooms at the courthouse, which would be accessible to disabled people under state law. A meeting took place today with Gusman’s office, which administers the money, to look at getting a contract for construction, Alarcon said.

“But you’re absolutely right,” Alarcon said. “You should look at that money with a jaundiced eye.”

Guidry also probed the court’s judicial expense fund, asking why its balance had dropped from $3.2 million in 2009 to $950,000 in May 2011.

Alarcon said $800,000 has gone to pay Gusman for security at the courthouse, and suggested that the court was being punished for “being a good steward of its money.”

“We don’t mind carrying our weight, but we just want to make sure that everyone else is doing the same,” Alarcon said.

Alarcon said that the court has run down the rest of that budget because of its failure to collect fines and fees from indigent defendants.

Alarcon also expected an upswing in jury fees this year. Guidry cited a little-known statute, R.S 15:571.11, that appears to require the judges to pay for jury fees before the city. Alarcon said he didn’t know about the statute, but agreed with Guidry to set a time to go over it.