New Orleanians of every stripe can all agree on maybe just a few things. Crawfish are good. Potholes are bad. The refs have it in for the Saints.
Saturday’s election results may add another item to the list.
More than 33,000 voters spoke with one voice in rejecting a tax hike proposed by Orleans Parish Sheriff Susan Hutson, whose first year on the job was beset with controversies and — according to a study last fall — the lowest approval ratings of any local elected official.
The margin of defeat, with 91% in opposition, left some wondering if any New Orleans election had ever ended in a larger landslide.
“In my 40 years of polling, I’ve never seen an initiative lose by that degree,” said political strategist Silas Lee, a sociology professor at Xavier University.
The results put Hutson in a political no man’s land, where taxpayers and the New Orleans City Council have signaled zero support for raising Hutson’s funding to the level she says is needed to fix the troubled jail she oversees.
Hutson was inaugurated a year ago Tuesday under promises to provide humane care for mentally ill inmates and bring the jail into compliance with the city’s decade-old federal consent decree. She beat longtime Sheriff Marlin Gusman by running on a message of change.
In an interview Monday, Hutson acknowledged she hasn’t convinced the public that those initiatives are worth the costs.
“I ran on a reform platform and for fixing what’s wrong,” Hutson said. “That’s not free.” She added that she didn’t campaign enough for the tax hike in person, and should have been more forthright with specifics of how she planned to spend the tax money.
“(Voters) want to hear the details,” said Hutson, who was elected to office after serving 11 years as the city’s Independent Police Monitor. “People are really knowledgeable about how they want their tax dollars spent.”
Hutson has no immediate plans to reintroduce her tax hike, she said. The current millage rate — 2.8 mills — expires at the end of 2025.
Hutson’s proposal to increase the rate to 5.5 mills would have brought roughly $12 million in additional revenue a year. That was right around the amount — $13 million — in new funding Hutson requested from the council in the fall.
Hutson told the council the new money would help address the biggest issues the jail faces, including severe staffing shortages and needed security upgrades.
The council rejected her request after members said it lacked details, or included extraneous expenses on office furniture and official travel.
The independent Bureau of Governmental Research published a report criticizing Hutson for not detailing how she planned to spend the money from her tax hike. Her campaign to garner support got a very late start — kicking off around two weeks ahead of the election.
The measure faced stiff opposition, with “No New Taxes” yard signs cropping up around the city and at least one anti-tax advertisement delivered in mailboxes. The mailer was distributed by Keep New Orleans Moving Forward, a political action committee funded by the Business Council of New Orleans.
As many as 400 “essential” jail positions currently sit vacant, Hutson said. Filling them — at the average starting deputy salary of around $39,000 — would cost an estimated $15 million a year, with no indication that more funding will be freed up anytime soon.
“She basically is facing a negative mandate — that citizens aren’t willing to provide her any resources,” said Ed Chervenak, a political scientist at the University of New Orleans. “The city council would be hard pressed, as well.”
And while Hutson made a campaign priority out of halting the construction of a jail annex for mental health services, the federal judge overseeing the consent decree has ordered it built. Hutson favored retrofitting the jail’s current facilities to accommodate inmates with special needs.
The lone bid for the separate facility came in at $89 million in the winter, 25% over the estimated cost.
Councilman Joe Giarrusso, who chairs the budget committee, said the resounding verdict delivered by voters makes it hard to envision the council steering much more money to Hutson.
“That shows that the public not only disapproves, but extraordinarily disapproves of this,” Giarrusso said, adding that the only way he can imagine Hutson receiving additional city funding would be if it was mandated by a federal order.
An October survey from the University of New Orleans revealed that just over a quarter of residents — 27% — approved of Hutson’s performance after six months on the job. That was lower than any elected official in New Orleans, though none in law enforcement received marks any higher than 36%, with respondents citing high crime rates.
Hutson more recently faced questions over her decision to put up several of her top deputies in local hotel rooms during Mardi Gras. She then fired four top deputies, including the chief financial officer who said he was investigating the possible improprieties of that decision.
One of those deputies, Kristen Morales, who oversaw internal affairs and IT, has yet to be let go, Hutson said Monday. Morales has stayed on to help transfer the jail’s software onto a new system, Hutson said.
Without the funding to add staff, Hutson said she’ll focus on bolstering training to make her existing jailers more effective.
“We continue to do a lot of work in this city,” Hutson said. “I have to make sure people understand that.”
Lee said restoring the public’s confidence will be a “monumental” task.
“It’s like a car manufacturer trying to sell their product and there’s been a wave of recalls,” Lee said. “Trying to convince people to buy that car is a difficult challenge.”