The Orleans Justice Center. (Michael Isaac Stein/The Lens)

To build the new “Phase III” jail will take money from parks and playgrounds, building maintenance and energy-efficient upgrades, according to a “proposed bond reallocation list,” created by Mayor LaToya Cantrell’s capital-projects administration.

Cantrell, Sheriff Susan Hutson, and many other city officials are outspoken in their opposition to its construction, citing concerns over both its cost and design.

Yet U.S. District Judge Lance Africk – who oversees the jail’s consent decree, with federal Magistrate Judge Michael North – mandated that the city build Phase III to provide long-overdue mental health and medical care to jail detainees. His perspective is shared by officials from the U.S. Department of Justice, court-appointed jail monitors and civil-rights lawyers from MacArthur Justice Center who, under the consent decree, represent people incarcerated at the jail. 

In June, the City Council unanimously approved a resolution urging a third-party audit of the costs of the 89-bed facility, which have doubled from pre-pandemic projections of $40 million. That early total also included FEMA funding of $39 million, putting the city on the hook for only $1 million. 

FEMA’s output of $39 million has stayed the same, even while projected costs have ballooned to $109 million, and it appears that the city has to extract $70 million from its budget to pay construction bills—  including an $89 million construction contract, recently signed with McDonnel Construction Services. 

The groundbreaking is now overdue – in a court-status report this spring, the city estimated that it would issue a notice to proceed to McDonnel by July 7. But that timeline has been stalled by the city’s audit request, a new legal challenge filed In June by the Orleans Parish Sheriff’s Office, and Hutson’s refusal by Hutson to sign a cooperative-endeavor agreement with the city to facilitate the construction. 

In a more recent update filed with the federal court, on July 14, the city wrote that all future milestones for jail construction were “TBD” – to be determined.

Last year, the city reallocated the first $26 million, from bond money originally slated for capital projects including libraries, a recreation center, and a new Emergency Operations Center. Many of those projects were chosen because they faced other hurdles that wouldn’t have allowed them to move forward, officials told The Lens at the time. 

This year’s reallocations were chosen from current capital projects that were at a stage where they could be most easily suspended or paused, according to a statement from the city.

It’s unclear why the current proposed reallocations are for $22 million. In a court filing in June, the city indicated that it would need to move another $37 million to cover the costs of the project. A spokesperson for the city did not immediately respond to questions regarding the discrepancy.

Reallocations will come from 37 identified capital projects

According to the list provided by the city, the administration will allocate $22 million from 37 identified projects. 

About one-third of the projects in the list are marked “completed,” and their contributions entail relatively small amounts of leftover money — including the 11 cents that remained after the construction of a $3.4 million firing range for the New Orleans Police Department. 

Projects giving up larger reallocations are mostly either in the planning or construction phase, including ongoing, citywide maintenance and improvements like building repairs ($2.4 million), parks and parkways improvements ($2.3 million) and energy-efficiency upgrades ($1 million, with an additional $50k coming from planned electric vehicle-charging stations).

The largest single reallocation will pull $3.6 million from a $3.8 million project entitled “Citywide Life/Safety Upgrades and Repairs.” 

It’s possible that these are the Life/Safety Repairs and Upgrades from the 2027 Capital Improvement Plan adopted by the City Planning Commission in October, which describes $5 million to be used in multiple city buildings, to replace equipment such as generators and fire-suppression, fueling and security systems. 

But the city declined to comment on specific projects and did not make anyone available for an interview related to any of the funding reallocations.

Impacts of the reallocations would vary widely, depending on the project, according to a statement from the city’s capital projects department. 

Basically, finished designs will now gather dust, because the money for construction is gone; fewer trees will be planted; fewer buildings repaired; and less money will go to projects planned with outside organizations like City Park.

Council approval: necessary? Or ‘no need?’

Generally, the City Council must vote to approve capital spending. Yet, so far, the administration has not submitted an ordinance to the Council to approve the reallocations that are earmarked for the jail.

And there is some disagreement  whether Council approval is necessary for Phase III spending. 

Last month, North, the U.S. Magistrate Judge, recommended to Africk that the project move forward without the additional audit pursued by the Council. Delaying the project would be “irresponsible,” North said – and “to do so and think anything would change for the better would probably be delusional.”

North also took a dim view of any “funding delays” — presumably referring to the possibility that the City Council might block approval of the allocations or drag its heels to do so — and said that such delays should be treated “as contemptuous conduct and punish[ed] it as such, should it occur.”

Last month – prior to North’s order – City Council President JP Morrell suggested at a council meeting that, without an independent audit of expenses, he would not vote in favor of any Phase III spending. He suggested that The Lens refer to his prior public statements on the matter and demurred about providing any new perspective on the city’s proposed reallocations.

Within the city’s capital projects offices, the posture is that any allocation for the jail’s construction “must” be approved by the Council, a city spokesman said.

“No need,” responded Councilman Joe Giarrusso, referencing North’s recommendation. “Federal court orders supersede any City ordinances or rules,” he said.

Giarrusso, signed onto the council’s request for an audit because of how quickly costs had grown, but said at that meeting that he believed that he and his colleagues were getting “dangerously close to violating our oaths of office by continuing to pursue and, and suggest that there is compromise where there may not really be any that exists at this point.” 

Giarrusso would like to see the city give  up its opposition, he said, and instead look for ways to spare the city’s capital budget by seeking financial assistance for the jail’s construction from the federal government and other places.

If held in contempt of violating a federal order, the city could end up with a double loss, an overly pricey new jail and “significant fines” levied by the court, Giarrusso said.” That is perilous for the City because the Phase III price-tag has skyrocketed. … We cannot afford that.”

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...