In December, residents of the French Quarter will vote on a ballot measure to renew a quarter-cent sales tax that has been used solely to fund Louisiana State Police patrols in the French Quarter since it was first approved in 2015. But with less than three months until election day, it’s still unclear how the money would be spent.
There are now two competing plans for how to spend the revenues if voters approve the tax, but in either scenario, it appears that the money will no longer go to pay for the State Police. And it appears that regardless of which vision wins out, there will be a smaller supplementary security presence in the French Quarter overall for at least the next couple years due to the catastrophic economic impacts of the coronavirus pandemic.
One of the two plans comes from Mayor LaToya Cantrell, who wants to use the money to fund a new security team made up of a mix of police officers and civilians. The other is being championed by the French Quarter Management District — a state created body whose board is largely made up of appointees from tourism industry groups and French Quarter business and neighborhood groups. It hopes to use the money to expand an existing security detail made up of off-duty New Orleans Police Department officers.
“We have to maximize the dollars that are here, and the State Police were expensive, and they were as transparent as mud,” Karley Frankic, Executive Director of the French Quarter Management District, told The Lens in an interview. “There are some people who really think they’re great, but they’re the minority… Otherwise they’re seen as expensive and not trained in urban policing.”
The State Police presence in the French Quarter has come under fire repeatedly since 2016, for questionable spending and because the state troopers are not subject to the same rules as the New Orleans Police Department under a long-running federal consent decree.
Now, the French Quarter Management District wants to use the money instead to expand the French Quarter Task Force, which hires off-duty NOPD officers for supplemental patrols. The task force was originally created in 2015 by local entrepreneur Sidney Torres, and is recognizable by the blue-light Smart Cars officers drive. The program is now administered by the French Quarter Management District.
“Our program is already established,” Frankic said. “We can grow it with these funds.”
In meetings this week, the FQMD started drafting a cooperative endeavor agreement, or CEA, with the French Quarter Economic Development District, which is responsible for managing the tax revenue. The board of the development district, which is composed of New Orleans City Council members, appears to be in support of FQMD’s plan. Last month, it passed a resolution announcing their intent to sign a CEA that would give FQMD control over the revenues from quarter cent sales tax if it’s approved by voters.
But that CEA would also have to be signed by Cantrell, who has other plans for the money.
Cantrell wants to use the tax to create the Unified French Quarter Patrol Structure, which would provide security patrols with a mix of off-duty NOPD officers and members of the city’s newly created Grounds Patrol Division of the New Orleans Office of Homeland Security. The grounds patrol is made up of city employees who provide security, but aren’t actual police officers.
Overall, the mayor’s plan calls for NOPD officers providing a total of 48 patrol hours per day and grounds patrol employees serving a total of 36 hours per day of patrols.
“Grounds Patrol will serve to provide an additional security presence and address Quality of Experience and Code Enforcement issues that will further free up 8th District NOPD officers to go about the job of regular policing,” said a statement from Cantrell’s office. (The 8th District is responsible for policing the French Quarter, the Central Business District and a small part of Faubourg Marigny.)
Both a city spokesperson and Frankic told The Lens that negotiations are moving and that they were hopeful a unified plan would come together. Negotiations have allowed the FQMD to convince the city to change its plan to include 48 hours of NOPD patrols a day after its original plan called for just 24 hours.
But there still appears to be a firm disagreement on the two core issues — who should control the money, and whether it should be used to pay citizen patrols or solely for off-duty NOPD officers.
Those differences are now threatening to sink the tax renewal altogether. Meeting notes from a July FQMD meeting show board chair Christian Pendleton discussing the city’s plan.
“Mr. Pendleton reported that he has been informed by the Louisiana Restaurant Association (LRA) that they will not only not support but will actively fight against the renewal unless the money is to come to FQMD,” the meeting notes said. “The idea of starting another administrative security force that cannot improve or sustain the property values of the residents, or the security of the businesses of the French Quarter is a non starter.”
At an August board meeting, FQMD board members were presented with letters from a list of organizations that said they would support renewal under the condition that the money went to and was managed by the FQMD. The letters all came from organizations that appoint members to the FQMD board — The Louisiana Restaurant Association, the French Quarter Business Association, the Greater New Orleans Hotel & Lodging Association, North Rampart Main Street Inc. and Vieux Carre Property Owners, Residents and Associates.
The city defended its plan in a statement to The Lens, saying it’s an issue of city control of local tax revenues.
“One of the key pieces at issue is the amount of control that FQMD, a state entity, wants to exert over locally derived funds,” the statement said.
‘We’ve been down this path before’
Frankic told The Lens that one of her central concerns with the city’s plan is that the grounds patrol won’t have the same enforcement powers as NOPD officers.
“The problem with the grounds patrol is that they’re not POST certified,” she said, referring to the Police Officer Standards and Training Council. “They can’t arrest people, they can’t write citations and summons.”
A PowerPoint presentation from the city, however, claims that the grounds patrol will eventually be able to issue citations and summons. And it appears that the cheaper cost of grounds patrol will allow for more patrol hours overall.
“Ground Patrol Officers will be trained in quality of life and code enforcement issues and are expected to be able to issue municipal summonses/citations for QoL offenses once changes to the City Code have been finalized and the Police Chief issues special commissions. These discussions are on-going.”
New Orleans’ home rule charter allows the NOPD Superintendent to “deputize persons not members of the police force to exercise limited police powers.”
“We’ve been down this path before in the previous administration,” Frankic said. “Where they put out the certified security guards and said we’ll get them the ability to write summons and citations. And the police union fought it and it never happened. They end up just being hospitality liaisons instead of security. And it’s at that point that the LSP and our supplemental police program came into being.”
In 2014, former-Mayor Mitch Landrieu launched the NOLA Patrol, a civilian security team to patrol the French Quarter, focus on code enforcement and quality of life issues and allow the NOPD 8th district to focus on more serious crimes.
Mike Glasser, president of the Police Association of New Orleans, publicly opposed the NOLA Patrol, and used it as an example in broader public arguments about how Landrieu was working against the best interest of NOPD officers.
NOLA-Patrol was officially shut down in 2016. In an article from The Times-Picayune, then-Deputy Mayor Ryan Berni said that the police union challenged the patrol’s authority to issue moving violations.
“Rather than spend money on lawyers fighting with the unions about whether or not we had the ability, we ceded the point,” Berni is quoted as saying in the article. “We decided not to fight that fight.”
There is certainly common ground between the two plans, however. Top of the list of priorities on both sides is consolidating the number of groups providing security on top of the regular NOPD.
“Presently over a dozen public and private entities are performing public safety and security tasks in the French Quarter,” read a slide in the city’s presentation.
“The big thing is we’ve got to unify and streamline,” Frankic said.
And both the city and the FQMD want security leadership for French Quarter security to be consolidated in the NOPD 8th District. The question is what supplementary personnel should be provided — overtime NOPD officers or civilian grounds patrol — and who should steward the funds — the city or FQMD.
Less money to go around
In 2019, there was $6.7 million in funding for the supplemental patrols in the French Quarter through the State Police and the French Quarter Task Force, according to the city’s presentation. That includes $3 million from the quarter cent sales tax, $1 million from the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center and $2.7 million from New Orleans and Company, a publicly-funded, private nonprofit that serves as the city’s tourism marketing agency.
Most of that went to pay the state police. According to an FQMD report, the French Quarter Task Force had a single funding source in 2019 — $1.2 million from New Orleans and Company.
Frankic is expecting a lot of that money to be unavailable, at least for next year. She said that while she couldn’t speak for New Orleans and Company or the Convention Center, the tourism and hospitality industry is reeling and likely won’t have extra money to spare in the short term. Neither organization responded to questions from The Lens about future contributions.
“There’s not gonna be any money, and it’s going to take several years for it to come back,” she said. “These tax dollars, that’s what we can plan for.”
But even if the tax is renewed, the city is projecting that collections will be significantly lower than in years past due to a shrinking tourism industry brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic. Current projections for 2021 are $1.8 million, compared to $3 million last year.
But that level of funding would expand the current size of the French Quarter Task force if all the revenue is dedicated to FQMD, even if New Orleans and Company ceased their $1.2 million contribution to the French Quarter Task Force.
Under Cantrell’s plan, the first $1.3 million raised by the sales tax would go to the Unified French Quarter Patrol along with an additional $1.5 million in funding from the French Market Corporation.
The remainder of the sales tax, estimated to be $500,000 in 2021, would be administered by a newly created French Quarter Economic Development Oversight Committee. That extra money would be used for other public safety and quality of life initiatives within the French Quarter.
“This is what we’re prepared to move forward with,” the city’s statement said.
Both sides have leverage in the debate. On the one hand, Cantrell would need to sign off on the CEA that would allow FQMD to gain control over the funds. On the other hand, Frankic says that FQMD has the support of the City Council and voters.
The number of voters who will get a say in the tax renewal is fairly small. Only residents within the French Quarter Economic Development District will be able to vote on the measure. According to the city’s presentation, there were only 3,100 eligible voters when the tax was first approved in 2015, and fewer than 1,000 people actually voted. The measure was passed with 773 yes votes.
Frankic said that among French Quarter “stakeholders” she spoke with, there was a “unified lack of support” for the mayor’s plan.
“I think that it would behoove the city to listen to the voters,” she said.