Sheriff Hutson’s plan for proposed tax hike opposed by policy nonprofit as too vague

Published: Apr. 19, 2023 at 11:31 AM CDT
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NEW ORLEANS (WVUE) - Sheriff Susan Hutson’s push for higher property taxes to increase her agency’s budget should be rejected by voters because her plans for spending the windfall are too vague, a non-partisan New Orleans policy research group said Wednesday (April 19).

“While the sheriff deserves credit for developing clear priorities, this tax proposal is not the best way to achieve them,” the nonprofit Bureau of Governmental Research concluded. “The proposal lacks meaningful public accountability, both from the sheriff and its partner in the jail’s future, the City of New Orleans.”

The proposal put forth by Hutson seeks to nearly double the millage devoted to her agency -- from 2.8 mills to 5.5 mills -- to generate an estimated $11.7 million more for the Orleans Parish Sheriff’s Office annual budget. The plan would cost the average New Orleans homeowner an extra $50-$100 or more in additional property taxes, based upon the appraised value of their homes.

The BGR advised Orleans Parish citizens to vote against the measure on the April 29 ballot, and took Hutson to task for belatedly trying to sell voters on a plan it described as both “incomplete” and “premature.”

“The sheriff proposed the tax after the City of New Orleans, which provides more than three-quarters of the jail’s funding, declined the sheriff’s request for a $12.4 million budget increase for 2023,” the BGR said. “The tax proposition received little or no public discussion until less than a week before the start of early voting on April 15. The sheriff’s office had taken almost no steps to inform the public about the proposition beyond a mandatory public notice in a newspaper. This raises significant transparency concerns as voters have had little time and information to evaluate the proposition.”

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Hutson heard similar criticisms at a City Council meeting last week, and embarked on a small blitz of media appearances this week in an attempt to sell voters on the proposed tax hike. Hutson also outlined her plan and attempted to explain the agency’s needs Tuesday night at a sparsely attended public forum in Mid-City. Her spokesperson said a second forum would be held next week in Algiers, but said no site or date has been finalized.

Hutson told Fox 8 in an interview Tuesday that if the millage increase passes, 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.

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.”

The BGR was not impressed with the vagueness of Hutson’s spending plan.

“The spending plan is incomplete and does not specify how the office would use $4.1 million, or more than a third of the additional $11.7 million in tax revenue,” the research group said. “The office also has not provided any details on a $1.8 million allocation for staff training. The spending plan does not address more than 400 vacant positions that the sheriff’s office identifies as essential, including 278 at the jail. Nor does the plan account for looming expenses to staff a court-ordered “Phase III” mental health and medical services facility to be built next to the main jail.

“Such a piecemeal approach to addressing the jail’s needs is problematic, especially given longstanding disagreements between the city and the sheriff’s office over jail funding levels.”

The BGR warned that even if voters agree to raise their property taxes to provide the OPSO its requested budget boost, there are no assurances from the city that the boost wouldn’t be offset by a cut in its annual funding for the Orleans Justice Center jail.

“This means voters cannot be assured the millage proposition would result in increased funding for the office for the purposes described,” the report said. “The existing tax does not expire until 2025, providing time for the sheriff to fully develop future jail staffing and compensation plans, and for the sheriff and city to work toward an agreement on the jail’s needs and an appropriate funding level as BGR recommends.

“The responsibility for negotiating that solution falls on both the sheriff and the city.”

The full BGR report can be found here.

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