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Mayor: 'No Blank Check' 

Landrieu questions prison consent decree cost

  Mayor Mitch Landrieu says a proposed federal consent decree between Orleans Parish Sheriff Marlin Gusman and the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) — on top of a similar consent decree with the city to reform the New Orleans Police Department (NOPD) — "cannot be paid for in this fiscal year without raising taxes or substantially gutting city services." His administration pegs the cost of the sheriff's settlement at $110 million over five years.

  Landrieu made his comment at a special City Council meeting last Thursday, March 28, which was called at his suggestion to discuss the prison consent decree. Under the terms of that proposed agreement (and as a matter of law), the city must pay the sheriff millions of dollars each year to provide for local prisoners. Landrieu is balking at the consent decree's tab, saying he was blindsided by the feds and Gusman because he was not part of the discussions that led to the agreement.

  "During this fiscal year, the sheriff, DOJ, federal judges are all riding up to tell us and the taxpayers of the city to write a blank check and hand it over," Landrieu said. "We will not voluntarily write an ambiguous, unjustified sum of money to the Orleans Parish sheriff's office."

  Deputy Mayor Andy Kopplin laid out four possible budget scenarios if the city accommodates the cost of the prison consent decree, which he pegged at $22 million a year (and growing): all city employees would be furloughed 30 days this year; the city would lay off 779 employees; all city departments would take a 45 percent cut; or, in what the city expects to be the most realistic scenario, a combination of 305 layoffs, 15 furlough days for all city employees, and 6.3 percent cuts in other departments and services.

  Landrieu's chief concern is the potential cost to public safety. "If we are forced to make these cuts, they will be real ... and throw our entire criminal justice system in disarray," he said. Kopplin outlined dire cuts to city services, from police and fire to NORD camps and Parks and Parkways.

  Kopplin also told the council that the city's $30 million budget for the sheriff's office ($18,000 per inmate) would nearly double with the city's cost of compliance with the consent decree — and reminded councilmembers that they already shuffled city department budgets to meet a $7 million payout for the NOPD consent decree this year. (Kopplin said the prison consent decree would amount to $110 million over 5 years, while the NOPD consent decree would be $55 million over the same period.)

  "Some have questioned whether we're just blowing smoke ... or this is political theater," Landrieu said. "Much of our fate is in the hands of a few federal judges. There is no savings account and no judicial expense fund to pull from."

  This week, U.S. District Court Judge Lance Africk begins the jail's consent decree fairness hearings. In May, Africk will hear arguments regarding funding. — Alex Woodward

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