Sheriff Susan Hutson described the millage as upkeep. “You know it’s like when you buy a house. The mortgage pays for the house, but you still must pay if something breaks.” Before the city council she also called it a compliance millage. “We have to get out from under the consent decree and this millage makes it possible.” The bottom line – Sheriff Hutson seeks a tax increase.
You may be unaware that a millage increase is on the ballot in the upcoming election. Orleans Parish voters must decide if they are going to nearly double the taxes the sheriff receives. The current millage costs about $47 a year for the average homeowner. That translates into about $12 million annually. Those funds are primarily used to pay for the new jail. The sheriff is proposing a new “compliance millage” that adds another $50 to the taxes of the average homeowner. The sheriff contends that she does not get enough money from the current millage to become compliant and to end the consent decree. The new millage will replace and extend the current millage.
I spoke directly to Sheriff Hutson last week. She claims the new millage is critical. The Sheriff says that getting out from under the burdensome consent decree can only happen if her office receives more money. She blames her staffing shortage issues on the low salaries she can pay. Hutson went on to describe how the money will be used. Three key areas-
- Salaries for deputies and staff
- IT infrastructure
- Maintenance and building improvements.
Salaries for Deputies
Currently the average deputy makes about $18 an hour. The sheriff finds herself in a competitive environment. Recruiting and keeping deputies is difficult. Working in the jail is tough, demanding, and dangerous work. In fact OJC is described as one of the most dangerous jails in the country. Located in the murder capital of the world, the prison houses some tough characters. Not many want the job of maintaining care custody and control in a place like that. The sheriff found that some new deputies wash out. Many say it just ain’t worth it.
So, the sheriff plans to increase salaries to make the job more appealing. Sheriff Hutson believes that getting deputies closer to $25 solves the problem. While the focus is on deputies, other staff members will also see pay raises under this plan.
The jail’s computer equipment is antiquated. It is completely dependent on one man who designed the system. OJC has an IBM AS/400 midrange computer. I won’t bore you with the technical details, but this is old technology that most people only use as a backup. The hardware is durable and lasts years. But this computer is at least 20 years old. And if it dies on the vine, the entire criminal justice system might come to a screeching halt. NOPD uses the system to properly identify people they arrest. The judges use the system to check criminal cases and records. And the clerk of court relies upon the data to track all of it’s court records.
Additionally, the sheriff found that the personal computers of many staff members are so antiquated that they cannot even join Zoom calls. Since the pandemic, many organizations continue to use the internet as an efficiency tool. Not Orleans Parish Sheriff’s office. The technology improvements and enhancements are one of the campaign promises Hutson is attempting to keep with this millage.
Maintenance and building improvements
Building maintenance and improvements are essential parts of the jail’s safety. In fact, Sheriff Hutson claims two of the unfortunate deaths at the facility are the result of poor maintenance and design. She claims several design problems contribute to violence in the jails. After a resident jumped to his death, Hutson had netting installed to prevent others from doing the same. She says the netting should have been in place in the original design. But she must retrofit the entire building and add netting to many other areas.
After a fight, another inmate died. Hutson claims one guy fashioned a couple of knives from removable trim. He attacked another resident who slammed him down, and he later died. From removeable door knobs, to cabinet pulls to floor trim, inmates make weapons. “So many bad designs and improper installations make the facility really just unsafe. We are going to have to spend so much money retrofitting the building.”
And these enhancements do not include the regular maintenance that a huge building like this requires. Ac work. Painting walls. Though it seems much newer, the jail is nearly a decade old. All buildings require maintenance. If left alone for a decade, then every building would be in bad condition. A prison is a high use facility.
We call them inmates. Sheriff Hutson sees them as residents. Everyday around 2000 people use the facility. Your tax dollars will mean the city has a fully functioning jail. For the residents who live there, we need this to be a safe place. For the men and women that serve our community and work there, we really need this to e a safe space. And for our community, we need the men and women who live and work there, we need the best jail in America.
This is the language you will see on your ballot.
Shall the Law Enforcement District of the Parish of Orleans, State of Louisiana (the “District”), levy a tax of 5.5 mills on all property subject to taxation in the District (an estimated $23,805,370 reasonably expected at this time to be collected from the levy of the tax for an entire year), for a period of 10 years, beginning with the year 2024 and ending with the year 2033, for the purpose of providing additional funding for Orleans Parish Sheriff’s Office, including, but not limited to, payment of salaries, equipment and training, with said millage levied each year to be reduced by the millage rate levied that year for the District’s currently outstanding General Obligation Bonds, said tax to be in lieu of and replace an ad valorem tax of 2.8 mills authorized to be levied in the District through the year 2025 at an election held in the District on May 2, 2015?
Citizens must decide to increase taxes to shore up the sheriff’s office or force the sheriff to figure out how to make more out of what’s left.