La. sheriff asks for extra $13M to reverse critical staffing shortages
A deputy said many are tempted by better pay and safer working conditions at Target department stores
By Matt Sledge
The Times-Picayune | The New Orleans Advocate
NEW ORLEANS — Orleans Parish Sheriff Susan Hutson tangled with City Council members during her first annual budget hearing on Friday, as she pitched a pay increase for deputies and $25 million in one-time expenses while defending her spending on travel and consultants.
Hutson said she wants $13 million more than Mayor LaToya Cantrell proposed, mostly to reverse critical staffing shortages.
However, a top official in Cantrell's administration said he thinks Hutson already has enough money to raise pay, and council members said the sheriff should slash unnecessary expenses before asking for more money.
The sheriff, who's gotten off to a rocky start after her inauguration in May, cast the need for more deputies in dire terms: "If we pay them, they will join," she said. "This community demands public safety.
"The question is will you, the City Council, join me, the mayor join me, and will the community join me in fixing what is wrong?"
Borrowing a line from former President Donald Trump, Hutson started her presentation by decrying "fake news" about her office.
The agency's missteps proved all too real for two inmates who died in jail in June, one by suicide and one by homicide. For weeks, Hutson's office refused to release reports on those deaths to attorneys for represent incarcerated people. Only on Thursday, the day before the budget presentation, did Hutson's office produce more details.
The endemic problems at the Orleans Justice Center stem from severe staffing shortages, Hutson said. The Sheriff's Office says it has 304 staffers and 254 open positions. There are 7.8 residents at the jail for every deputy, compared to a 3.3 national average, Hutson's office said.
"We are dangerously below any reasonable level of operational ability and safety," said David Trautenberg, the agency's chief financial officer.
Before the COVID-19 pandemic, the Sheriff's Office was almost up to an adequate staffing level, thanks to an earlier round of raises, Hutson said. But in the years since, deputies fled as wages stagnated.
An entry-level correctional deputy makes $15.57 per hour, compared to $17.31 in Jefferson Parish or $20.28 in East Baton Rouge, according to Hutson's presentation.
Two deputies made emotional pleas to the City Council for more funding. One described deputies being tempted by better pay and safer working conditions at Target department stores. Another described wrangling scores of jail residents in the "docks," a holding center adjacent to the courthouse, with one colleague by his side.
"We need this," deputy Bryan Favorite said. "It's very seldom anybody like me at the bottom of the barrel gets to say something. Do not go back to default. Do not go back to the norm."
Cantrell's proposed 2023 budget would keep City Hall's contribution to the Sheriff's Office operating budget flat at $37.1 million.
Gilbert Montaño, Cantrell's chief administrative officer, said that with a more than $1 million surplus in each of the past several years, the Sheriff's Office has enough to offer employees $2.43 hourly raises, to increase starting pay to $18 per hour.
If the sheriff is successful in hiring more deputies, she can come back to the City Council in the third quarter of 2023 to ask for more money, Montaño said.
"Start providing the raises. You have the funds and the money available to do so. Start today if the council is in agreement," Montaño said.
But Hutson and her top lieutenants said they want to go further, offering deputies $2 extra per hour to work day shifts in the jail and $4 extra for unpopular night shifts. They also want to offer a variety of fringe benefits to bolster retention.
Separate from its operating budget, the Sheriff's Office wants $25 million in federal pandemic relief money to buy jail management software, new financial software, physical security enhancements, server upgrades and more.
City Council President Helena Moreno and others said they agreed with the idea of deputy pay raises, but they were skeptical of Hutson's request for a big bump in operating money. They ticked off question after question about line items in Hutson's budget.
"The reason why we're asking so many questions right now is ... we want to make sure it is the deputies who are prioritized, and that money isn't going to frivolous things, or going to benefit just the very, very top administrators," Moreno said.
Hutson's budget proposed $4.5 million for consultants and $250,000 for furniture, Moreno said.
"Well, I don't know where people are supposed to sit," Hutson said. "I think that is meant to try to embarrass, to try to make light of the plight that we're in, but it's a very serious plight."
"I do think $250,000 worth of office furniture is a lot," Moreno said.
Council member Joe Giarrusso zeroed in on the budget's $668,000 in proposed travel expenses, a tenfold increase from prior years.
Hutson, who was criticized in September for a pricey trip with 10 employees to Destin, Florida, said the figure in her agency's budget proposal was a mistake.
A path forward?
Hutson was a sharp critic of former Sheriff Marlin Gusman on the campaign trail in 2021 — and at his budget presentation last year — and the dynamic at Friday's budget hearing was similar to hearings under Gusman. For years, Gusman asked for more money from reluctant city officials. And for years, council members asked for more transparency from an agency with an independently elected sheriff.
Hutson bristled, for instance, when Moreno asked her to use City Hall's purchasing software, so that council members could watch over her shoulder.
Noting that all sides said they want to increase deputy pay, council member Oliver Thomas said he saw a path forward toward accomplishing that goal.
"We have been a city of low bid, low pay, low expectations and low deliverables," Thomas said. "I think there's a lot more room during these budget hearings ... to get to that place where everybody is unhappy enough to be happy."
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