The city of New Orleans and the French Quarter Management District have been pushing two separate plans for how to use the proceeds from a quarter cent sales tax in the French Quarter in the event that voters renew the tax on Dec. 5. But at a FQMD board meeting on Wednesday, Mayor LaToya Cantrell’s Director of Strategic Initiatives Joshua Cox made it clear that the FQMD plan wasn’t going to happen, and that the city would be moving forward with its own plan starting next week.
In both plans, the money would be used for supplemental security in the French Quarter. Since the tax was first approved in 2015, the proceeds have been used solely to pay for Louisiana State Police patrols in the French Quarter and surrounding areas. But it appears that will no longer be the case. Neither the city nor the FQMD plan calls for the money to be used for State Police.
The FQMD — a state created body whose board is largely made up of appointees from tourism industry groups and French Quarter business and neighborhood groups — wanted to use the money to bolster the French Quarter Task Force, an off-duty officer patrol program it’s managed since 2015. The city wants to use the money for a mix of civilian grounds patrol and overtime NOPD officers.
The other central difference between the two plans is who gets to control the money: the city or the FQMD. The FQMD doesn’t manage the tax revenue or the State Police patrols now. The city does. The tax brought in $3 million in 2019, according to Cox, but with the slumping economy is only expected to bring in $1.8 million next year.
“There has been a major point of contention, and as I see it it’s this — it’s control,” Cox said. “My understanding of the FQMD’s position has been that they want the city to collect the tax and deliver it to the FQMD to wholly manage as they see fit. We simply can’t do that. … We’ve found ourselves in situations where the city has given money to unelected bodies and then sort of been held hostage by some of those bodies when it comes time to work together.”
Cox said that the city will be presenting its own plan for approval by the City Council next week The seven City Council members make up the governing authority of the French Quarter Economic Development District, the state-created body that is technically levying the tax.
However, Cox said that the plan could be introduced in one of two ways, depending on FQMD’s willingness to negotiate. The preferred option, he said, would be to ask the council to approve a cooperative endeavor agreement between the city and FQMD that would give FQMD an advisory role.
But if the FQMD doesn’t negotiate on the city’s terms, the city will simply introduce the ordinance that retains the core structure of the city’s plan, but with a much more limited oversight role for FQMD.
“There are two paths where this can go,” Cox said. “Look, we don’t want to get to the ordinance route. We would prefer that FQMD is the entity that is managing and involved.”
But with Dec. 5 just around the corner, Cox said it was vital that the city introduce one of those two pieces of legislation next week so that voters know how the money will be used by the time they cast their ballots.
“At the end of the day we don’t have very much time left,” Cox said. “And again, in order to get this done before the ballot initiative, in order to have a firm CEA in place that the Mayor can sign and that can be enforced, we’ve gotta offer something for first reading next week.”
The .25 percent sales tax would only apply to sales within the French Quarter, and only French Quarter residents get a say. The tax was first approved by voters in 2015 with less than 1,000 total votes.
Before Cox spoke, the FQMD board was considering a motion to send their CEA to Councilwoman Kristen Palmer for consideration. In order for the CEA to go into effect, the council would have to vote to approve it, and then the Mayor would have to sign it.
But after Cox’s remarks, the motion was replaced.
Instead, the board voted to send their CEA to Palmer not for consideration in front of the full council, but rather as a basis for negotiations with the city. The motion passed with eight yes votes, two no votes and two abstentions.
“I think this is a very counterproductive motion,” said board member Robert Watters, who voted against the motion. “I’ve never known the city to take someone else’s document as a starting point. … I think throwing down a gauntlet at this point is counterproductive.”
‘The city is not going to hand the money over to FQMD’
For the last five years, the two primary supplemental security forces in the French Quarter have been the Louisiana State Police patrols and the French Quarter Task Force, which was hires off-duty NOPD officers to patrol the quarter blue-light smart cars.
Last year, the two programs had a combined funding of $6.7 million, most of which went to the State Police. 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.
Next year, city and FQMD officials expect most of that funding to disappear due to the city’s crumbling tourism economy during the coronavirus pandemic. Both of the tourism groups are cutting off funding for the programs. That means $3.7 million less for supplemental security in the French Quarter.
“There are just less resources,” Cox said. “The $2.7 million from the [New Orleans and Company] self assessment – that’s gone. The $1 million from the Convention center – that’s gone. So the real challenge is how do we use the limited resources we have.”
The end of the agreement between New Orleans and Company and the city means that the city will also lose an additional $2 million for the French Quarter Improvement Fund. On top of that, New Orleans and Company is demanding that the city return $3 million of unspent money in the French Quarter Improvement Fund.
Without the money from the tourism-industry groups, the city is solely relying on the quarter cent sales tax to fund supplemental security in the Quarter. And even if voters approve the tax, it is expected to bring in significantly less than it did in prior years. Cox said the tax proceeds are expected to go from $3 million in 2019 to $1.8 million in 2021.
The city did not respond to a request to review the city’s draft CEA. But under a plan that the Cantrell administration presented to FQMD in July, the first $1.2 million of the sales tax proceeds to fund its new Grounds Patrol Division within the New Orleans Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness.
The city would create a subgroup within the Grounds Patrol called the “French Quarter Corps,” which would take over patrolling the French Quarter instead of the State Police. They would also be responsible for providing security in Armstrong Park. The grounds patrol is already patrolling Armstrong Park, and Cox said that portion of the plan would still come out of the city’s general fund. Although Cox also noted that Armstrong Park fell within the boundaries of the French Quarter Economic Development District.
The city’s plan would also supplement the civilian grounds patrol with overtime officers from the NOPD’s 8th District. It wasn’t immediately clear if those officers would be paid from the quarter cent sales tax revenue or another source.
The city would also create another subgroup within the grounds patrol called the French Market Corporation Corps. The city would pay for that using roughly $1.5 million from the French Market Corporation.
All the money taken in by the quarter cent sales tax after the first $1.2 million would be used “for enhancing public safety and quality of life in the French Quarter with the guidance of a the newly appointed Advisory committee.”
Cox said on Wednesday that if the FQMD negotiated with the city, it could act as that advisory board. Otherwise, the board would be made up of representatives from a “conglomeration of entities within the quarter.”
Under FQMD’s plan, the entire proceeds of the tax would be routed to the French Quarter Task Force or to similar programs that use “POST-certified” officers, referring to the Police Officer Standards and Training Council. Francic has argued that the grounds patrol won’t have the same enforcement powers as POST-certified officers, especially around quality of life and code enforcement issues.
In its presentation, the city claims that the grounds control will be able to issue municipal summunses and citations for quality of life issues “once changes to the City Code have been finalized and the Police Chief issues special commissions.” New Orleans’ home rule charter allows the NOPD superintendent to “deputize persons not members of the police force to exercise limited police powers.”
Francic, however, told The Lens in an interview last month that similar promises have been made before, pointing to the now defunct NOLA Patrol, a civilian security team to patrol the French Quarter started in 2014 under Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s administration. A key aspect of the program’s demise was opposition from New Orleans police associations, notably from Mike Glasser, head of the Police Association of New Orleans.
On Wednesday, Cox reiterated that the grounds patrol would be “commissioned with the ability to deal with minor issues as well as quality of life and code enforcement violations.”
Towards the end of the meeting, FQMD Commissioner Jeremy DeBlieux asked for firm clarity on the city’s message.
“Under no circumstances will the city cede control of this money. That’s correct right?”
“Yeah, the city is not going to hand the money over to FQMD,” Cox said.