At Thursday’s budget hearings for the city of New Orleans, debate continued to swirl around the ultimate cost of the federal consent decree outlining reforms at Orleans Parish Prison.
Orleans Parish Sheriff’s Office
Sheriff Marlin Gusman’s proposed 2014 budget of $41.4 million includes $11.2 million to implement the required changes. But an expert on prison reform and financing delivered a report Thursday arguing that Gusman could reduce the cost of the consent decree by $5 million.
David Eichenthal of Public Financial Management said the company’s report, “Impact of Consent Decree on Orleans Parish Prison FY 2014 Budget,” shows that the most important factor in cutting the cost of the consent decree is to reduce the prison population. That would save money throughout the operation, including food, medical care and personnel.
The current prison population is about 2,300, down from 2,600 two years ago. The new prison building will have beds for 1,438 inmates.
Eichenthal said Gusman’s budget currently falls short by $7.3 million because of the decree, but if changes outlined in the report were implemented, the gap — the net annual cost of the consent decree — would be reduced to $2.05 million.
Other estimates for the cost of the consent decree have ranged from $7 million to $22.5 million annually.
Though Gusman has asked for $41.4 million next year — and he projects expenses of many millions more — the Landrieu administration has proposed $28.7 million, a slight bump from this year’s $28.3 million.*
Other measures recommended by Eichenthal’s report:
Support for Gusman’s plan to hire 135 more deputies over the next 18 months, which would reduce overtime
Consolidating administrative services, such as vehicle repair, with other city departments
Using city attorneys rather than hiring outside firms
Gusman took issue with the report, saying the averages used to calculate spending on prisoners ignored many of the special circumstances that drive up costs. For example, the law requires inmates under 21 and under 17 to be separated from the general population. That increases housing costs.
Gusman also defended using contract lawyers who bill by the hour, rather than seeking legal help from the City Attorney’s office. Councilwoman Susan Guidry noted the sheriff has budgeted legal expenses of $780,000 next year, which Gusman said was down from this year.
Guidry wasn’t impressed. “That means you would be paying a law firm $2,000 a day for 365 days,” she said.
Gusman said he hires outside firms because they handle cases of highly specialized law. The city attorney later disagreed with that claim.
Gusman’s office has paid a flat fee to Usry, Weeks & Matthews of $780,000 a year, regardless of how much work was done; he said Thursday that he had ended the flat-fee arrangement, according to The New Orleans Advocate.
City Attorney Sharonda Williams said her office has asked for $447,777 less than 2013 because it had gotten more efficient in approving city contracts and was getting more collections from traffic and municipal court cases. She expects that trend to continue.
The council had little but praise for the work of the office, especially its crackdown on violations of alcoholic beverage licenses — primarily noisy bars that were disrupting neighborhoods.
Parks and Parkways
Parks and Parkway Director Ann Macdonald said a $900,000 increase in her office’s budget is necessary for her staff to continue to mow 2,000 acres of grass and trim 500,000 trees. (That increase is based on the amended budget of $7.07 million.)
Council members also praised her department, saying it has a small budget for the amount of work that must be done.
Budget hearings continue Friday.
*Correction: This story originally misstated the Sheriff’s Office budget for 2013. (Nov. 12, 2013)