Recently appointed Orleans Parish Sheriff Susan Hutson faced opposition from the City Council in her first annual budget hearing after requesting significant funds to rectify staffing shortages.
Hutson requested an additional $25 million from COVID-19 relief aid on top of the agency’s initial operating budget to cover pay raises for deputies and one-time expenses. That brings her budget total to $13 million over the more than $37 million New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell initially proposed.
The sheriff argued that the funds were necessary to reverse critical staffing shortages, but councilmembers and members of LaToya’s administration said the department already has sufficient funds, advising the sheriff to cut unnecessary expenditures before asking for more money.
Hutson, who was inaugurated to the position in May, urged the council to approve the funding increase to help recruitment and retention.
“If we pay them, they will join. 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?” she asked the council, according to NOLA.com.
Hutson’s office said that staffing problems were resulting in poor conditions at the Orleans Justice Center, where both a homicide and a suicide took place in June.
According to the Sheriff’s Office, there are 304 staffers and 254 open positions at the facility. For every deputy, there are 7.8 residents at the jail, compared to a 3.3 national average.
“We are dangerously below any reasonable level of operational ability and safety,” stated David Trautenberg, the agency’s chief financial officer.
Hutson blamed the poor attrition rate to stagnating wages in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. In her presentation, she noted that entry-level correctional deputies make $15.57 per hour in New Orleans, compared to $17.31 in Jefferson Parish or $20.28 in East Baton Rouge.
Deputies also spoke at the hearing, urging the council to approve the budget. They claimed that working at Target would yield better pay and safer working conditions.
“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 Chief Administrative Officer Gilbert Montaño said the sheriff should already be able to raise starting pay by $2.43 to $18 an hour.
“Start providing the raises. You have the funds and the money available to do so. Start today if the council is in agreement,” Montaño told Hutson.
He added that if she is able to hire more deputies, she can come back to ask for more money.
However, Hutson said the funds are not enough to provide benefits and raises for unpopular night shifts.
The sheriff’s $25 million proposal is also intended to cover items such as jail management software, new financial software, physical security enhancements, server upgrades and other expenses.
City Council President Helena Moreno agreed with the idea to raise deputy pay, but shot down Hutson’s request for more operating funds to cover the aforementioned expenses.
“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.
Moreno pointed to $4.5 million for consultants and $250,000 for furniture expenses as an example.
“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.”
Hutson replaced former Sheriff Marlin Gusman last year.