NEW ORLEANS (AP) — The city of New Orleans might have to fire or furlough police officers if it has to pay for millions of dollars in improvements that the sheriff has to make at the local jail due to a pact with the U.S. Justice Department, Mayor Mitch Landrieu told the City Council on Thursday.
Sheriff Marlin Gusman later disputed the mayor's contention that the jail agreement could cost the city $22 million a year — a figure the mayor's office says came from conversations with the Justice Department.
Gusman declined to give an estimate on actual costs, but said Landrieu was using "scare tactics" in laying out budget scenarios that include cuts in police and fire protection, elimination of recreation programs for children and less streetlight and road repair.
"I'm insulted by the mayor's lack of leadership," Gusman said.
The proposed jail agreement is awaiting approval in federal court. A separate agreement that the city and the Justice Department reached last year to reform the police department has already been approved and the city estimates it will cost $55 million over the coming years — including $7 million budgeted this year.
City officials say they cannot afford to fund both pacts. Landrieu's administration is trying to get out of the police agreement, claiming it was kept in the dark about the separate jail negotiations and that it has already begun making major improvements to the police department. Meanwhile, it is opposing approval of the separate jail agreement.
On Monday, U.S. District Judge Lance Africk holds a hearing designed to assess the fairness of the jail agreement and to consider the city's arguments against it.
Thursday's council meeting and Gusman's later news conference were the latest developments arising from decades-long problems in two key elements of the New Orleans criminal justice system.
The police department has long been plagued by instances of corruption, mismanagement, allegations of brutality and even murder convictions. Civil rights activists, meanwhile, have said the jail, operated by the sheriff but funded by the city, has long been overcrowded and under-supervised, with prisoners suffering beatings at the hands of other prisoners and guards. The jail's critics say inmates' medical and mental health needs go unmet and sexual assaults are commonplace.
Landrieu, in remarks that at times appeared to be aimed at federal judges overseeing the reforms as much as at the council and the public, said the city was not named in a Southern Poverty Law Center lawsuit that led to the jail agreement, known as a consent decree.
And, he said, the agreement "speaks to policies, procedures, training, and management, among other issues, that neither I as Mayor, nor you the City Council, control."
In his third year in office, Landrieu noted that his administration cut an inherited deficit of nearly $100 million during his first year by cutting spending and increasing City Hall efficiency. Since then, property taxes have gone up and the city has begun a series of sewer and water rate increases to pay for fixes to a badly leaking water system.
Landrieu said Gusman, also elected locally, has the power to seek voter-approved tax increases of his own and can seek more money from the Legislature. But, Landrieu said, "I cannot in good conscience ask the taxpayers of New Orleans for more of their hard earned money without assurances that the money will be well spent."
While Landrieu said the city has maintained a steady funding rate for the jail even as the inmate population has diminished, Gusman said years of neglect plus rising food and medical costs mean more money is needed.
Said Gusman: "What we're talking about, it's very clear, is the responsibility of the city."