Hutson makes case for why Orleans Parish voters should boost OPSO budget with tax hike

Published: Apr. 18, 2023 at 9:12 PM CDT|Updated: Apr. 19, 2023 at 8:34 AM CDT
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NEW ORLEANS (WVUE) - Orleans Parish Sheriff Susan Hutson made her case Tuesday (April 19) for why New Orleans voters should approve a proposed tax hike in the upcoming April 29 election that would generate millions of dollars for her agency.

Hutson wants parish voters to approve a 5.5-mill property tax which is basically double the property tax already dedicated to the sheriff’s office. It would replace the current 2.8 mills dedicated to the sheriff’s office and cost most New Orleans homeowners an additional $50-$100 per year or more, based upon the appraised value of their home.

“I don’t think people understand the conditions under which our deputies are working,” Hutson said. “We can have up to 60 people on a pod and sometimes you’ll have deputies trying to cover two pods and watch the cameras as well. One deputy trying to look at over 120 people and to monitor a camera, that is impossible. That’s an impossible job.”

Hutson said the Orleans Justice Center jail is operating with only 55 percent of the staffing needed.

“We know that we need more deputies to do that critical work, to comply with that (federal) consent judgment,” Hutson said. “If we do not get those deputies, if we do not have a competitive pay plan, we will never comply with the consent judgment. We will not run a constitutional jail like we need to.”

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She said about 350 deputies are employed by her agency and at least 300 more are needed. The OPSO received $55.7 million from city government for 2023, but Hutson says the budget is inadequate.

If the millage increase passes, the OPSO would received an additional $12 million per year. Hutson said at least $5 million would be used to boost deputies’ pay to help with hiring and retention; $1.8 million would go to training; $1.5 million would be used to improve healthcare benefits, and some of the funds would be used to replace what she calls an antiquated computer system and make other changes she said are needed to make the jail safer.

“They did not put up proper fencing to keep from being able to jump,” Hutson said. “There’s other flaws in the system that make it more easy for residents to hurt themselves. And then the building was built in such a way that there were different metal implements in cabinets and things in the pods themselves which allow residents to break off that metal and create weapons.

“That makes a dangerous situation for them. That makes it dangerous for our employees.”

Hutson said more of the additional money would be used to establish a “rainy day” fund for the jail.

“We’re trying to make sure that we put at least $7.5 million together (over the 10 years of the millage),” Hutson said. “So, that’s about $750,000 annually until we build that up. We’ll do it over the life of the millage, we’re not going to do it all at once. But that’s absolutely essential for us being ready for any disasters that go on.”

Hutson said she thinks it is in the public’s interest for her office to have such an emergency fund at the ready.

“So, we need that fund to be there to make sure our employees can still operate, we can still manage this resident population (in an emergency),” Hutson said. “We’ll have to move them and then we’ll be available also to the police. During (Hurricane) Ida, deputies patrolled in the East and supplemented NOPD, so we’ll be there for that.”

City Council members last week had pointed questions about Hutson’s plans for the proposed tax hike, suggesting she had not been transparent enough with them or the public.

“We’re always going to listen to our community,” Hutson told Fox 8 on Tuesday. “If they want to hear more, we’re more than happy to give them. But I just want to remind them that I’ve talked about this since Day One.

“We started out in July with the changes that we need to make to the facility in detail. We went through a budget cycle with the city,” she said. “We talked in detail about the $25 million for (information technology) upgrades, the amount of money for a new pay plan, all of those details were there. We’ve been talking about it from the very beginning.”

She said she still is having conversations with council members.

“Before Mardi Gras kicked off, I had to make a decision about this,” Hutson said. “Putting this on the ballot and we thought this would be a good time period to do it, because we’re going to get a boost from Mardi Gras. I reached out to all the council members and the mayor. I called them all and let them know this is what we’re going to do and they said, ‘Can you put this in writing about what you want to do?’ And I sent them a letter as well.

“I had no questions about that until we got to the City Council meeting ... so, we’re continuing to talk to them and ask for their support.”

Five mills would cost taxpayers with a home valued at $250,000 with a homestead exemption $87.50 more a year, according to the sheriff’s office. Hutson says the higher millage would make the community safer.

“Because the Orleans Parish Sheriff’s Office will be ready,” she said. “We need deputies and we’ve done everything our community asked us to do when I took office. We took office with 55 percent staffing. We are still manning the courts and we allowed the courts to open up fully, our deputies do that every day. They do that with a lot of overtime and with a lot of extra effort, but we need more in their ranks to be able to cover that.”

Hutson said passing the millage would help the jail get out from under continued federal oversight.

“I am guaranteeing we’re going to get out of this consent decree,” Hutson said. “I think I can, and the reason being we can upgrade all the things that you need to comply with the consent decree. No. 1 -- stabilizing staffing -- that is the key.”

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