Criminal Justice

Friday budget meeting with sheriff offers preview of next week’s citizen meetings

Mayor Mitch Landrieu will kick off the public portion of the city budget season Monday with the first of five community meetings, one in each City Council district. Landrieu has been holding these budget town halls annually since taking office in 2010; The Lens has covered them all.

This year’s first meeting is Monday in District D at the Beacon Light International Baptist Cathedral at 1937 Mirabeau Ave. The meeting begins at 6 p.m. Follow the live blog below.

Monday’s meeting comes on the heels of a tense City Council Budget Committee meeting convened Friday to discuss one of the city’s trickiest budget issues: the Orleans Parish Sheriff’s Office and the city’s jail.

In 2013, a federal judge found that conditions at the jail violate the U.S. Constitution, and the Sheriff’s Office signed a federal consent decree to bring it into compliance. The effort will require millions in additional expenditures in hiring, training and improved facilities, for which the city is primarily responsible. The city already has given the Sheriff’s Office $7 million above its approved budget for the year. And if the jail’s monthly expenses continue at the same pace, it may need tens of millions more.

The council’s Budget Committee held the special meeting to ask for long-sought answers on exactly how the Sheriff’s Office spends the city’s money. But for the second time in recent memory, Sheriff Marlin Gusman did not appear before the council.

On Tuesday, he refused to attend a Criminal Justice Committee meeting about an ongoing dispute with the city on the appropriate size of a new jail under construction, now capped by city law at just over 1,438 inmate beds, a functional capacity of about 1,250. At Friday’s meeting, he sent a proxy, James Williams, a contracted attorney for the Sheriff’s Office.

Gusman ran through most of his allotted $28.6 million budget for 2015 by June, forcing the City Council to approve an additional $7.1 million last month.

On June 17, before the council voted for the additional money, City Councilwoman and Budget Committee Chairwoman Stacy Head asked Gusman to appear before a budget committee meeting this month to provide information about his finances including:

  • A detailed explanation of Sheriff’s Office spending in 2015
  • Projected revenues, expenditures and year-end balances for the office’s general fund and each special fund
  • A detailed 2015 budget
  • A cost estimate for housing state inmates, a function outside of the jail’s primary mission of housing pretrial Orleans Parish inmates

It was unclear how much of that information the Sheriff’s Office sent the council. Though Head requested it by the beginning of the week, the Sheriff’s Office only provided it Friday morning in a large binder, leaving council members little time to prepare for the 10 a.m. meeting. According to council staff members, the sheriff provided only seven binders — one for each council member — so the information was unavailable to the public. The Sheriff’s Office did not immediately respond to a public-records request for the documents.

In his remarks to the committee, Williams said the Sheriff’s Office spends about $5.2 million per month on inmate care, security and related correctional expenses. The city’s monthly funding is about half that. If expenses continue at their current pace, the jail will need $62 million this year, more than double its originally approved budget.

“Coincidentally, the amount the sheriff requested for the year,” Williams said.

“Hopefully it’s not coincidental. Hopefully he does math,” Head responded.

First Deputy Mayor and Chief Administrative Office said the city plans to offer Gusman more money next year. Though the city no longer pays the Sheriff’s Office on a per-inmate per-day basis, he says the spending plan amounts to $113 per inmate per day, more than the jail is likely to spend this year but at an overall savings because of an assumed reduction in population, said David Eichenthal, a contracted financial consultant for the city. Assuming an average of 1,265 inmates per day, that comes to $52 million next year.

“Our proposal for funding the Sheriff’s Office for the jail is not done on the cheap,” Kopplin said. However, he’d like to see Gusman reduce some of his expenses. Kopplin has been particularly critical of a health care contract expected to cost $83 million over five years, up from an original proposal of $36 million for three years.

Williams said the cost increase resulted from demands of federal monitors overseeing the implementation of the consent decree.

Much of Williams’ presentation focused on the state inmates, which the city has characterized as a drain on its finances. According to Williams, the jail now has only 354 state inmates, more than half of whom are in a re-entry or work-release program. The overall number is down from nearly 1,100 state inmates in March 2012, a month before Gusman closed the House of Detention building, sending more than 300 state inmates elsewhere.

Williams said housing the inmates actually provides about $9.2 million in grant, reimbursement and state per-diem revenues.

According to Eichenthal, each state inmate costs about $94 per day, but the state only provides between $17 and $26 for each. He estimated if the jail stopped housing all state inmates except those awaiting transfer to a state prison, it would save about $7.5 million per year.

Head and Kopplin scoffed at Williams’ claim that the jail’s kitchen contract with food service giant Aramark, which relies on state inmates for kitchen work, saves $2 million in labor costs. According to his presentation, the kitchen recently had only about 20 state inmates on the kitchen detail.

“Kitchen workers don’t cost $100,00 apiece per year,” Kopplin said.

Williams conceded the estimate was provided by Aramark.

Live blog, 6 p.m. Monday

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  • nickelndime

    Good for you, THE LENS. You all keep covering this. The local cockroaches of New Orleans – analogically speaking – they do not like the light! WE have nothing against cockroaches, mind you – for all WE (my ASP and I) know, those cockroaches (the actual ones) are what is keeping New Orleans afloat and on the FEMA maps.
    07/10/2015 10:07 PM DST USA