Clock ticking on deal for jail changes

As Sheriff Marlin Gusman made his first of three scheduled visits to a New Orleans City Council budget hearing Friday, the group barely inched toward a decision on perhaps the most pressing question before them: How much the city will have to pay in 2014 for court-ordered changes at Gusman’s jail, long considered one of the most brutal and inhumane in the country.

The clock is ticking. The council plans to pass a budget by Nov. 21, just four weeks away. It must find enough money by then to pay for the reforms needed to please the federal judge overseeing a consent decree, without unduly damaging other city agencies and programs.

U.S. District Court Judge Lance Africk, presiding over implementation of the consent decree, recently punted the issue of funding for next year back to the City Council.

The sheriff has asked the city to give him $36.2 million for 2014, including, according to his budget documents, $11.2 million to implement the decree.

Mayor Mitch Landrieu has offered him $14 million less, the same $22.1 million the Sheriff’s Office got to operate on this year. But the mayor has suggested the sheriff also could have at least some of the $4.2 million left unclaimed in the city budget.

The council, the sheriff and the administration, together, must hammer out where the rest of the money will come from.

The city agreed last week to pay the sheriff $1.9 million to implement the decree’s demands for the remaining two-plus months of the year. If the spending continues at the same pace, that figures out to be about $9.5 million for a full year, leaving more than $5 million to be cobbled together by the council.

The sheriff, the city’s inspector general and a consultant hired by the mayor took turns before the council Friday afternoon in a hearing that stretched for four hours.

Much of the conversation centered on a question the council thought it had answered two years ago, after a hard-fought battle and public protest: How many jail beds New Orleans actually needs. The council signed an ordinance capping the number at 1,438, hailed as a watershed in ending the city’s reign as the prison capital of the county.

But that plan was recently scrapped, with the mayor and the sheriff agreeing that the number should be higher than 1,438, but lower than the 2,500 the jail now houses on an average day.

The city’s expert, Dr. James Austin, told the council that it should focus on reducing the city’s prison population, by investing in pre-trial services programs, encouraging the police to make fewer arrests and streamlining the court system.

So on top of funding the consent decree, the council must once again determine how many people the city should be locking up in the first place.

Even if the prison population is dramatically reduced, the council must come up with millions in the next month to pay for the consent decree.

Gusman, however, has not yet sent the council a detailed breakdown of what he intends to do with the money he is asking for, as 95 percent of other city agencies have managed to do.

The sheriff told the council that he’s been distracted by consent decree negotiations and intends to get a breakdown to them promptly.

Councilwoman Jackie Clarkson warned him that without that information, he risks getting no money at all.

New Orleans Inspector General Ed Quatrevaux tossed a grenade into the mix at the hearing, presenting the council with an analysis of the sheriff’s 2011 finances. Quatrevaux said Gusman funnels the city’s money into one pool with the money he receives from other sources, making it impossible to know how much it actually costs to operate the jail.

Gusman described Quatrevaux’s assertion that he has just one “jumbled pot of money” as “crazy.” He said his books are audited by the state, by the Federal Emergency Management Agency and by his own internal auditor.

Gusman detailed for the council several ways he said he’s saved money over the years: He said he’s closed down more than half of the prison buildings his office operated before Hurricane Katrina. The average daily inmate population has plummeted from more than 7,000 to about 2,500. His deputies, already the worst-paid law enforcement personnel in the region, have been mandated to take unpaid furloughs. Positions aren’t being filled.

He said he was amenable to other cost-saving proposals pitched by the administration, like merging certain administrative functions with city-run agencies.

But the council tossed him mostly softball financial questions, at least compared with the grilling he got from the city’s attorneys during federal court hearings over funding for the consent decree. No one on Friday asked him about the $68,000 he pays his law firm every two weeks, for a total of $1.7 million a year. No one inquired about millions funneled to Major Services, a information technology company owned by a longtime political supporter.

Gusman, however, is scheduled to appear twice more in the council chambers before the 2014 city budget is finalized.

“Not that I’m looking forward to it,” he informed the council.