New Orleans City Hall (Michael Isaac Stein/The Lens)

The city of New Orleans has reallocated over $26 million in bond proceeds it was planning to use for a variety of projects — including $3 million for a recreation center in New Orleans East, $2 million to the public libraries, and $6 million for a new Emergency Operations Center — in order to pay for the construction of a controversial “special needs” jail building. Though the building, known as Phase III, is widely opposed by city officials, a judge presiding over the jail’s long-running federal consent decree says it is necessary to provide adequate medical and mental health care to detainees. 

According to records provided by the city, more than a dozen projects are impacted by the reallocation. That includes more than $4 million that was intended for projects in City Park, including a special-needs playground and indoor tennis courts, along with $2.5 million intended for renovations to an old vehicle inspection station in New Orleans East, where the city intends to relocate the New Orleans Police Department Support Services and barricade storage. 

But Vincent Smith, the city’s director of capital projects, said many of those projects are still able to move forward for now with some reduced funding, and that others would have likely been delayed regardless of the reallocation. He said money for those projects will be restored when the time is right. 

“We considered if a project could continue to be advanced for phasing strategy — you know, OK, does a project have the ability to absorb a reduction?” Smith told The Lens in an interview last week. “We looked at changes in project conditions that would allow the reallocation.”

The reallocations were quietly approved by New Orleans City Council in early August, though the specific projects were not identified in the ordinance that was passed

Mayor LaToya Cantrell, City Council members, and Orleans Parish Sheriff Susan Hutson are all aligned in their opposition to building the new jail facility. 

Cantrell has called the building a “waste of taxpayer money.”  And advocates have long pushed back against any expansion of the jail, saying that the city should instead invest in community based mental health treatment. 

Initially, the city estimated the facility would cost $51 million, of which $39 million would be covered by post-Katrina reimbursement funds from FEMA. But more recently they have increased the projected cost to $60 million, and said that FEMA will cover $36 million, which they have indicated is due to rising costs of goods and services. 

But the other parties to the consent decrees — civil rights attorneys representing detainees, and the United States Department of Justice — as well as court-appointed monitors overseeing the jail, argue that the facility is necessary in order to provide adequate medical and mental health care, and to prevent suicides. 

The city agreed to build the 89-bed facility during former Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s administration, and for several years Cantrell’s administration was moving forward with design work and providing regular progress updates to the court. But in June 2020, the city abruptly halted work on the facility, and filed a motion as part of the consent decree litigation asking the federal judge to let them out of building it, citing improved mental health care at the jail and a declining jail population as reasons why the facility was no longer necessary. 

In addition, they argued that the financial burden placed on the city by the COVID-19 pandemic made the construction of the facility no longer feasible.

But after months of arguments, the judge rejected the city’s request, ordering the Cantrell administration to move forward. 

Still, many criminal justice reform advocates say that putting money into a facility at the jail is a bad investment in the long-term. 

“Removing funds from places that promote wellness, like parks and recreational centers, to construct a carceral facility to house people with acute and sub-acute mental illnesses is disheartening,” said Will Snowden, director of the New Orleans office of the Vera Institute of Justice, which has long opposed the new facility. “We need the city to fund community-based programs that care for people instead of punishing them.”

Vera has proposed that the city use $40 million of the federal dollars they received from  the American Rescue Package Act to construct a 100-bed “community solutions center” that would provide a range of mental health services. 

The projects

The largest single chunk of money reallocated for Phase III was $6 million that was marked for a new Emergency Operations Center, which is operated by The New Orleans Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness to coordinate public safety efforts during emergencies, such as hurricanes. 

Smith said the city was looking to move it out of City Hall where it is currently located, partly because City Hall lost power during Hurricane Ida last year. But he said the administration still hasn’t found a location for it yet, so the money wasn’t going to be immediately utilized anyway. 

“We did not have a location, but we just plugged some money in to start the process,” Smith said. “In the scheme of projects, we felt this was one where we could take the money with a minimal impact given where we are in the planning process.” 

Another portion of the Phase III money came from a planned recreation facility in New Orleans East, in a HANO-owned former apartment complex that is currently being used as a storage facility for New Orleans Recreation Development Commission.

Initially, the city allocated  $3.3 million to retrofit the facility, located on Chef Menteur Highway near Wilson Avenue. But $3 million of that will now instead be used for Phase III.

Still, Smith said that the $300,000 left in the project will allow it to move forward with the design phase, and when it is time to do the actual construction work, the money will be put back in. 

“We said, ‘Okay, let’s keep some money in so that we can advance the design.’ So that when we are ready to replenish or put the money back, we’ll be ready to move into construction,” he said. “That was part of the strategy.”

Funding for projects in Audubon Park and City Park were chosen for reallocation partly due to the fact that those parks are operated by separate agencies that can generate their own revenue, Smith said. (Representatives of Audubon Park and City Park did not respond to requests for comment.)

The $2 million for the New Orleans Public Library was intended to be used toward relocating a new storage and display space for the City Archives, a project that has been in the planning phase for years.  

Currently, most of the archives are stored in temperature- and humidity-controlled spaces in the basements of the Main Library, according to Jane LeGros, a spokesperson for the public libraries.  She said in an email that basements are “ not ideal storage solutions for archival collections, particularly in a city prone to flooding.”

“Ideally, we’d like to have more space for displays and archival exhibits so the public can see more of the collections in person,” Legros said. 

Smith said that the city had previously planned to move the archives to a new City Hall, which the administration had anticipated would be in the Municipal Auditorium in Armstrong Park. But after pushback from community members, the administration scrapped that idea, and now a new space for the archives is in limbo. 

“That project is —  I’m not gonna say it’s on hold, but, you know, we’re still in the planning phase on it,” Smith said. 

Legros said that the reallocation does not affect the library’s “commitment to securing the City’s Archives in a proper, more visible/accessible manner for the public’s use.” 

Nick Chrastil

Nicholas Chrastil covers criminal justice for The Lens. As a freelancer, his work has appeared in Slate, Undark, Mother Jones, and the Atavist, among other outlets. Chrastil has a master's degree in mass...