By Natasha Robin | WVUE | October 23, 2020
NEW ORLEANS, La. (WVUE) – The City of New Orleans is requesting relief from court orders to build a new jail building, and do away with a temporary facility that now sits behind the main jail building.
The 89-bed facility is intended to provide a space for inmates with medical and acute mental health needs.
“As part of that request, the city has argued a significant change in circumstances. We know that the city of New Orleans has been challenged financially by the COVID -19 global pandemic,” said City Attorney Sunni LeBeouf.
The city points to its $150 million shortfalls as having limited resources to move forward with a new jail. Rafael Goyeneche with the Metropolitan Crime Commission says the city committed to building phase three of the jail years ago, and now it’s changing its position.
“The city’s been paying the architect to design phase three. The city council voted and awarded the contract to build a phase three and now, a few weeks ago, the city says we don’t want to build a phase three. We want to retrofit the existing facility,” Rafael Goyeneche said.
FEMA money would be used to build the actual facility, but the city says operational costs and staffing would be an added expense.
“Maintenance of the building, upkeep of the building, staffing and all of those additional expenses that would be required for the jail is what the city is responsible for, and that would come from the general fund,” LeBeouf said.
It’s an issue, Goyeneche says was presented during the federal court hearings over the last couple of weeks.
“The staffing that goes for the medical mental health moves from the temporary detention center into the new facility, so that argument is totally groundless,” Goyeneche said.
“When you think about FEMA money, this is a special structured FEMA money. It is a single fund that the city can use this money for its need of now. It is not tied to how much money was associated with the OJC pre-Katrina. It does not have to be spent on OJC,” Ramsey Green said.
The city’s Deputy CAO Ramsey Green says it’s about figuring out a better way, and he says the city believes they can retrofit the existing jail building and save money.
“Let’s figure out a better way to do this rather than to build something that we now have to leave to our children or grandchildren to pay and operate. We, right now, can foresee that we don’t need it,” Green said.
“The city has essentially had a free ride with the federal funds that have been provided to build an adequate facility, not just for right now or next year, but whatever decisions are made now are going to affect public safety and the city’s financial responsibilities for decades to come,” Goyeneche said.
A Federal Judge is right now taking everything into consideration, and he’s expected to make a decision in the coming weeks about whether phase three of the jail will have to be built.