Sheriff Susan Hutson appears before the City Council Criminal Justice Committee n June 15, 2022. (Michael Isaac Stein/ The Lens)

On Friday, Orleans Parish Sheriff Susan Hutson asked the New Orleans City Council to approve a budget increase of around $13 million beyond what Mayor LaToya Cantrell proposed for her office, saying that the funds were needed to provide a pay raise for all current deputies and make the starting wage for new deputies competitive with other departments.

Cantrell has recommended that the council keep the Sheriff’s Office general fund appropriation roughly the same as it was last year at $37 million — not including the jail’s $19 million private healthcare contract. Hutson wants that to be raised to around $50 million.

Hutson said that her office for too long has been an “afterthought” in the criminal justice system, and that it has been shortchanged with funding when compared to other criminal justice agencies, such as the New Orleans Police Department. 

“A lot of people don’t even know what the Orleans Parish Sheriff’s Office does,” Hutson said. “There is no criminal justice system and there is no public safety in the city of New Orleans without the men and women of Orleans Parish Sheriff’s Office. You must pay and respect them accordingly.”

Currently, starting deputies at OPSO make $15.57 per hour. Hutson said that is not enough to compete with other nearby sheriff’s offices, such as neighboring Jefferson Parish, where the starting wage  is over $17, or East Baton Rouge, where it is over $20. 

She said she wants to give an across the board $2.43 raise to all deputies, to bring the starting salary up to $18 an hour. 

But the city’s chief administrative officer, Gilbert Montaño, said that he believes OPSO is already in a position to implement the raises given the office’s current surplus in funding. 

“We’re comfortable as an administration giving those numbers and saying, ‘Start providing the raises,’” Montaño said. “You have the funds and the money available to do so. Start today if the Council is in agreement.”

The City Council is currently holding department by department to determine if it wants to make any changes to the draft 2023 budget Cantrell introduced last month. The council ultimately has the final say, and has to officially approve the budget by Dec. 1. 

In this year’s draft budget, the Cantrell administration is implementing a new budget strategy based on the city’s difficulty hiring for all of its positions, especially in public safety agencies. The 2023 draft budget, Cantrell officials say, is an accurate reflection of what departments and agencies are actually spending on personnel, rather than funding all approved positions. 

Montaño said that based on staffing shortages at OPSO, the agency could go ahead and implement those raises now, and come back to the Council for a funding increase if they are able to beef up the office’s staff. But he said that based on his calculations, even if OPSO was able to hire 100 new deputies next year, they wouldn’t need to come back to the council for more money until the end of next year. 

Councilwoman Helena Moreno said that she agreed OPSO could move forward with the raises.

Hutson said that she was “grateful to hear today that the Council agrees that we’ll get a raise, that the city agrees that we’ll get a raise. We had not had that agreement prior to today, and we are ready to announce that to our team, and ready to move forward.” 

One long-time OPSO deputy gave an emotional public comment at the meeting, telling the council that he started working with the Sheriff’s Office when he was 19-years-old making six dollars an hour. He said he is 37 now, and making just $17.44 an hour. 

“That’s $11.44 in 18 years,” he said. “Y’all got kids? I just bought a six dollar gallon of milk. And all I’m asking y’all is to help me pay for it.” 

Montaño cautioned that while the administration was in support of a raise, there were other aspects of the Sheriff’s budget that they were not necessarily on the same page about. 

“We are completely in support of that hourly raise,” he told the council. “There is a whole other part of the budget request that I don’t think we are in the same accord with.”

While several council members agreed that pay raises were needed for rank-and-file deputies, they also questioned Hutson’s spending priorities and whether or not too much money was going to “frivolous” expenses, such as various consultants and new furniture for the administrative offices. 

“The reason we are asking so many questions right now is because we want to make sure that it is the deputies that are prioritized, and that money isn’t going to frivolous things or going just to benefit the very, very top administrators,” Moreno said. 

(In August, WWL-TV reported that Hutson had paid the controversial former head of the New Orleans  juvenile jail, Keyshaun Webster, $175 an hour as her acting chief of staff for several months over the summer.)

But Hutson pushed back on Moreno’s suggestion. 

“Let me stop this false narrative that we’re spending money wildly at the top,” Hutson said. “We are spending efficiently, we are spending wisely.”

Councilman Joe Giarruso also questioned Hutson about her office’s lack of a staffing plan, which OPSO officials have said repeatedly they are in the process of completing. 

At a court hearing in mid-October, a lawyer for the office, Graham Bosworth said that he believed the plan would be completed in two weeks. 

But Hutson said at the meeting on Friday that they only have a draft of the plan so far, and that  they are “putting a number of eyes on it internally.”  

“But as we sit here today, there is no staffing plan, and the Sheriff’s Office is asking for increased operational costs?” Giarruso said.  Hutson said that the office was moving forward based on the draft plan they had developed. 

“Has that staffing plan been shared with anyone on the council?” Giarusso asked. “Has it been shared with the city?

“It has not,” Hutson said. “It’s not final.”

The council has until the end of the month to determine whether to grant Hutson’s budget increase request.

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...