Sheriff Marlin Gusman presents his 2020 budget to the City Council.

Orleans Parish Sheriff Marlin Gusman presented his proposed budget to the City Council on Thursday, saying that his general fund allocation would increase by $13 million next year, from $53 million to $66 million.

But that doesn’t line up with the proposed budget that Mayor Latoya Cantrell presented earlier this month. That proposal shows the Sheriff’s office’s general fund revenue remaining steady at $53 million. 

The Sheriff’s Office is responsible for running the Orleans Justice Center, the city’s jail. Since 2013, the Sheriff’s Office has been overseen by a federal judge as part of a consent decree, enacted in order to bring the notoriously dangerous jail into constitutional compliance. In 2016, the judge sidelined Gusman, ordering that an appointed official, called a compliance director, handle the day-to-day operations of the jail. However, Gusman, as the elected head of the Sheriff’s Office, led its budget presentation on Thursday. 

After Gusman’s presentation, Sean Bruno, the Chief Financial Officer for the Sheriff’s office, said that the agency and the city were “on the same page” about the budget increase. He said the disparity between the budget book and the Sheriff’s Office’s presentation occurred because the office didn’t submit its proposal to Mayor LaToya Cantrell on time. 

But according to Cantrell’s Chief Administrative Officer Gilbert Montaño, the $66 million figure isn’t final just yet. Montaño told The Lens that there were “still unknowns” he was looking at, and that he still needed to understand the sheriff’s method for projecting costs such as overtime pay. 

“I’m very nervous about it,” he said. “The Sheriff’s Office is a big one.”

The most contentious issue in the budget so far has been Cantrell’s proposed increase in property taxes from a partial “roll forward” of property tax rates. That amounts to $6.9 million, about half the disputed amount in the sheriff’s budget.

According to a budget template Gusman presented to the council, most of the $13 million disparity is due to differing personnel expenditures. The sheriff’s budget for salaries is $9 million more than Cantrell’s. 

In the past, the judge overseeing the jail’s consent decree has ordered the city to give more money to Gusman in the middle of the budget year. In June of 2015, the City Council voted to send an extra $7.1 million to the jail. Then-Councilwoman LaToya Cantrell was the only council member to vote against the allocation, according to an article from The Times-Picayune that year. 

Another open question for the Sheriff is what medical costs will be for next year. Gusman’s medical services budget is $600,000 more than the city’s. The city’s $15 million annual contract with Wellpath, a private prison healthcare provider, is ending. According to Gusman, the city plans to bid out for a new provider. 

Gusman first hired Wellpath — then Correct Care Solutions — through a closed-door awarding process that drew criticism from city officials and the New Orleans Office of Inspector General. The city later took over the contract. As The Advocate reported last year, Wellpath has come under fire for its work in the Orleans Justice Center and has been criticized in wrongful death lawsuits and in reports by a federally appointed team that monitors the jail as part of the consent decree. 

Orleans Public Defenders once again ask for more funding 

In what has become an annual ritual, the Orleans Public Defender’s Office came to the City Council to ask for a larger allocation from the general fund, warning that current levels are woefully insufficient to adequately represent the thousands of defendants who cannot afford their own attorneys. 

According to their presentation, the office represents 85 percent of defendants in criminal district court. The office lost 30 employees this year, according to the presentation. Chief Defender Derwyn Bunton said that they haven’t been able to hire permanent replacements for those positions because of a hiring freeze.

The new people the office has been able to bring on have been volunteers or have come in with outside grant funding, OPD spokesperson Lindsey Hortenstine said. 

Cantrell has proposed increasing the general fund appropriation to the office by $500,000, from $1.8 million to $2.3 million. Including revenues from the state, court and traffic camera fines and other sources, that brings their anticipated 2020 budget up to $7.9 million. That’s only a $100,000 increase from last year, due to losses in court fee revenue and state funding. 

Bunton argued that the office’s funding should be closer to that of the Orleans Parish District Attorney’s Office. The District Attorney will have a total $12.4 million budget next year if the Mayor’s budget is approved as written, according to spokesperson Ken Daley. Of that, $6.7 million will come from the city. 

Daley pointed out that the District Attorney has responsibilities that the public defenders don’t, such as cases in juvenile court, working on appeals in federal court and a $1 million per year diversion program.

On the other hand, Bunton pointed out that his office has costs that the District Attorney does not. The Orleans Public Defenders’ Office has to pay $300,000 a year in rent, while the District Attorney gets office space for free, according to the presentation. He also mentioned the extra work his office has had to do to keep up with the evidence produced by the city’s expanding surveillance system. The District Attorney gets help from the police department and the city’s office of homeland security to utilize the cameras for their cases.  

Of OPD’s total budget, about $2 million will come from court fines and fees paid by defendants. That pot of money has been a subject of consistent criticism. Bunton refers to the system as a “user-pay” system that saddles low income defendants with escalating court debt. 

Recently the City Council passed a resolution calling for the dismissal of all debt that has been accrued in municipal and traffic court.  

On Thursday, council members were supportive of the Orleans Public Defenders, agreeing that their mission was vital and that the current funding mechanism, reliant on fines and fees, could be better.

“I’m willing to help in any way I can,” Councilwoman Kristin Palmer said. “I am concerned about the fines and fees and how that will affect y’all. I know we’re interested up here in doing away with bonds and bails and fines and fees in criminal district court. And my hope is that we can figure out a way of rightsizing this thing without sacrificing you.”

While council members were supportive, they stopped short of committing to add more money to the budget for the public defender’s office. 

“It’s the realities clashing with the politics,” Bunton said. “Pointing to the goodwill and translating that into a fully funded public defender’s office, that is part of the process.”

Michael Isaac Stein

Michael Isaac Stein covers New Orleans' cultural economy and local government for The Lens. Before joining the staff, he freelanced for The Lens as well as The Intercept, CityLab, The New Republic, and Pacific Standard. He was recently awarded a fellowship from the Heinrich Boll Foundation, which he used to report on water scarcity, division, and colonialism in Cyprus.