Friday, April 28, 2023

Susan Hutson will have plenty time to get more buy-in (or buy more people off) later

Susan Hutson

Susan Hutson's float (seen from way across the street because I had COVID) rolls down St. Charles Avenue in the Legion of Mars parade in February 

New Orleans's fav reformist Sheriff has not had a great time of things since her glorious elevation to that office. Maybe she just hasn't figured out how all the knobs and buttons work on the jail machine yet. Or maybe that whole notion about being able to steer the prison industrial industrial complex in wise directions from the inside needs to be rethought. Of course, Hutson would tell you, it just needs more money.

Sheriff Susan Hutson has quietly placed a question on this ballot that would expand OPSO's current property tax millage from 2.8 mils to 5.5 for the next ten years boosting her annual budget by about $13 million. Hutson hasn't offered a detailed description of her plans for the funding increase. She has called it a "compliance millage" which would imply that it is meant to help bring the jail into compliance with the dictates of federal oversight. But most of the money seems designated for staff raises and an, as yet, incomplete list of building improvements. As is often the case with the infamously opaque and unaccountable Sheriff's department, voters are just expected to trust whoever holds the office. In that regard, Hutson hasn't exactly inspired confidence.

There are three things that this Saturday's ballot measure would do and all of them are bad. 1) It will double the funding available to one of the most corrupt and unaccountable patronage wells in the city. 2) It will double the funding available to a jail that should by rights be emptied and closed.  3) It will also raise taxes on homeowners already getting nailed with rising insurance premiums. Landlords will inevitably pass these costs on to renters.  And of course the revenue generated creates no social benefit.

The thing is, it's not likely to pass. Not this time, anyway.  Every organization that regularly weighs in on such matters has come out against it. All of them have, in various ways, criticized the proposed millage because Hutson has no concrete plan for how it is to be spent. Which raises questions given how she spends money now. For example, DSA (one of the many orgs in opposition who I happen to be quoting here) points to this.

During this past Carnival season, Hutson's office was charged with coordinating the city's last minute mad scramble to staff parade routes with supplemental police and sheriff's deputies from around the state.  Law enforcement agencies have made it an annual routine to hold Mardi Gras hostage in order to shake down the city for money. This act has only grown more farcical in recent years and, this year, Hutson's participation has drawn particular scrutiny. According to reports, the Sheriff booked 13 or 15 hotel rooms for what looks like as many as 11 days and nights during the Carnival season, ostensibly for her staff and deputies. No audit can show exactly who used the rooms, though. After the story became a public controversy, Hutson announced the $18,000 hotel bill would be covered through private donations. This only raises further ethical questions, however. So does an expenditure of over $15,000 on a "conflict coaching" consultant to deal with the understandable push back from dissenting advisors among her staff. That money was poorly spent also. Hutson went ahead and fired four of her top staff anyway. At least one of them is considering filing for whistleblower status.

But after this proposal fails, it will be interesting to see what happens next.  The Sheriff's current millage doesn't actually expire until next year. So this is more of a trial balloon than a make or break gambit. I think the other reason it's on the ballot now is City Council already denied Hutson's request for the same amount of money last November so this would have been one way to work around that. In any case, it's just as likely we'll see a similar proposal appear on a future ballot.  The difference to watch out for then will be to see who, among the current coaliton of dissenters, will have been bought off ... er.. brought on board by then.

No comments: