Council committee votes to use $4 million in NOPD surplus for jail reforms, firefighter pensions

With the New Orleans Police Department struggling to recruit officers to fill its rapidly depleting ranks, the City Council’s Budget Committee voted Thursday to shift more than $4 million of unused cash from the department’s personnel budget to pay for other obligations.

The committee voted unanimously to transfer $2 million to Sheriff Marlin Gusman to help pay for court-ordered jail reforms and $2 million to the New Orleans Fire Department for pension-related costs. The committee also voted to move $250,000 from the police budget to the Chief Administrative Office budget to help pay for vehicle maintenance.

The measures all go next to the full council.

The Landrieu administration proposed moving the $2.25 million to the sheriff and CAO, while committee Chairwoman Stacy Head proposed moving the $2 million to the firefighters’ pension fund.

The NOPD has been striving to hire about 400 new officers to replace those lost through attrition. Its 2014 budget, approved last fall, had money to hire 150 recruits in five academy classes. But with just five months left in the year, the department has filled just one class of about 30, leaving a budget surplus.

Meanwhile, the city must cough up an undetermined number of millions to improve the jail and $17.5 million in court-ordered back payments to the New Orleans Firefighters Pension & Relief Fund.

The city and the Sheriff’s Office have been at odds over how to pay for improving conditions at Orleans Parish Prison. A federal consent decree requires the sheriff to increase the number of guards and rewrite policies in an attempt to reduce violence and improve the treatment of inmates.

The sheriff and the city have bickered for months over how much the city should have to spend to bring the jail into compliance with the decree. And earlier this week, an outside expert monitoring the court-ordered plan took Gusman and the city to task for failing to make improvements.

At the same time, the council also is looking to the Police Department budget to help shrink the $17.5 million debt to the firefighters’ pension fund. The city has not made full monthly payments to the fund during Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s tenure.

The $2 million “will allow them to not deplete the fund (further) for several months, if not through the end of the year,” Head said.

Head first floated the idea of transferring money from the NOPD to the pension fund last week while testifying in Civil District Court. Judge Robin Giarrusso rejected the offer during a status hearing on her 2013 order that the city pay the $17.5 million and told the city to pay its debt in full.

She also threatened to hold unnamed city officials in contempt of court if the city does not come up with the full amount. She did not name them, but the list could presumably include Landrieu and members of the council.

The prospect led Assistant CAO Cary Grant to refer to the ordinance as a “get-out-of-jail-free card” for Head.

Head, in turn, urged her colleagues to “please pass” the legislation.