Yesterday, Mayor Mitch Landrieu called for a special New Orleans City Council meeting to discuss the proposed federal consent decree for Orleans Parish Prison — namely how the millions of dollars to pay for it would cripple the city’s budget.
Today, Landrieu said a consent decree with Sheriff Marlin Gusman and the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) — on top of the consent agreement to reform NOPD — “cannot be paid for in this fiscal year without raising taxes or substantially gutting city services.”
“During this fiscal year, the sheriff, DOJ, federal judges are all riding up to tell us and the taxpayers of the city to write a blank check and hand it over,” Landrieu said. “We will not voluntarily write an ambiguous, unjustified sum of money to the Orleans Parish sheriff’s office.”
Deputy Mayor Andy Kopplin laid out four possible budget scenarios if the city accommodates the $22 million (and growing) cost of the prison consent decree: all city employees would be furloughed 30 days this year; the city would lay off 779 employees; all city departments would take a 45 percent cut; or, in what the city expects to be the most realistic scenario, a combination of 305 layoffs, 15 furlough days for all city employees, and 6.3 percent cuts in other departments and services.
Landrieu’s chief concern is the potential cost to public safety. “If we are forced to make these cuts, they will be real … and throw our entire criminal justice system in disarray,” he said. Kopplin outlined dire cuts to city services, from police and fire to NORD camps and Parks and Parkways.
Kopplin also noted to council that the city’s $30 million budget for the sheriff’s office ($18,000 per inmate) would nearly double with the city’s $22 million city’s cost of compliance with the consent decree — a reminder that council already had to shuffle city department budgets to accommodate for the NOPD consent decree. (Kopplin said the consent decree would amount to $110 million over 5 years, while the NOPD consent decree would be $55 million over the same period.)
“If you think it was tough to find ($7 million), and next year we have to find ($12 million) for the NOPD consent decree, add on $22 million per year for the sheriff, a total of $110 million, double what the proposed NOPD consent decree costs,” Kopplin said.
As Charles Maldonado reported, Gusman said in his follow-up response that he has “no idea where he got that from” and noted that the consent decree, as written, would be lifted after two years of compliance — but a July 2012 email from Gusman’s attorneys to the city, submitted to federal court, said that $22 million in new funding is in line with the sheriff’s estimate.
Following Kopplin’s remarks, public comments largely dealt with the mayor’s office threats of slashing budgets and services — rather than facing the inevitable and necessary reforms at the jail — and council’s decision to move to executive session following the meeting.
“I’m extremely disappointed we’re here today having this conversation in this format, in this structure and the way it’s being presented,” said attorney Mary Howell on behalf of more than a dozen people. “I’m asking you all to intervene and help resolve this dispute so we can come out of this with something humane, correct in terms of the law, correct in terms of the constitution and something to make our communities safer.”
“I can’t believe [the mayor’s office] would compare potholes and gardening and holding employees hostage when lives have been lost,” said Rosana Cruz of Voices of the Ex-Offender.
At his own press conference, Gusman said Landrieu’s emergency meeting was a “last-ditch attempt … to deflect attention away from a problem he knew was coming for many years.”
Landrieu seemingly anticipated Gusman’s remarks and those from public speakers at the meeting. “Some have questioned whether we’re just blowing smoke … or this is political theater,” he said. “Much of our fate is in the hands of a few federal judges. There is no savings account and no judicial expense fund to pull from.”
Next week, U.S. District Court Judge Lance Africk begins the jail’s consent decree hearings. In May, Africk will hear arguments regarding funding.