Federal judge: Orleans Parish Sheriff Marlin Gusman lacks legal authority to raise deputy salaries

A federal judge ruled Monday that Orleans Parish Sheriff Marlin Gusman lacks the authority to increase the pay of his deputies, agreeing with Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s administration that state law allows city officials to set those salaries as part of their duty to fund operation of the jail.

A court-ordered plan to reform the jail calls for hiring dozens of additional deputies, but Gusman contends he has struggled to recruit and retain new hires because the starting salary is unattractive and significantly lower than the pay offered by the New Orleans Police Department.

In arguing for raises for the deputies last year — at an annual cost of nearly $8 million — the sheriff’s attorneys said the city “must compensate the deputies’ sacrifice and commitment to a safer New Orleans by paying them a living wage.”

The city countered that starting pay at the Sheriff’s Office is “consistent with national benchmarks” and comparable to other Louisiana correctional officers.

Sheriff’s Office deputies start at $27,000 a year, a rate that increases to $33,000 after one year on the job and completion of the P.O.S.T. Correctional Academy, according to the Sheriff’s Office website.

New Orleans Police Department recruits, by contrast, receive a starting salary of $40,391. Counting state supplemental pay, their pay increases to $50,449 after a year of qualified service, said Tyler Gamble, an NOPD spokesman.

U.S. District Judge Lance Africk, who is overseeing a consent decree between Gusman and the federal government, wrote in a 10-page ruling that both the Sheriff’s Office and City Hall have taken “unrealistic views” in their long-running funding dispute, with Gusman seeking “the proverbial blank check” from the city and the Landrieu administration complaining at every turn about the costs of revamping the jail.

On the matter of deputy pay, however, Africk pointed to a state statute that states salaries “shall be fixed and regulated by the parish or city authority.” Gusman, the judge concluded, “lacks unilateral authority to increase salaries at OPSO.”

Africk also ruled that Gusman — a former city chief administrative officer — must comply with the city’s budgeting requirements outlined in the Home Rule Charter, including submitting detailed financial data to the Chief Administrative Office. But he stopped short of declaring the Sheriff’s Office subject to “budgetary oversight” by the city.

“Nothing cited by the parties suggests that the city must rubber-stamp the sheriff’s budget, but neither can the city defund or underfund the jail,” Africk wrote. “As with so many other issues in this litigation, the devil will be in the details.”

Africk noted that his “tolerance for brinkmanship is not limitless,” and he urged the two sides to work together in good faith.

“Every moment spent by the city and the sheriff taking extreme positions prolongs non-compliance (with the consent decree) and does a disservice to the citizens of New Orleans,” he added.

Follow Jim Mustian on Twitter, @JimMustian.

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