Less than a month after French Quarter residents voted against renewing a quarter cent sales tax to fund supplemental public safety, the City Council is already starting the process to call another election in April to pass a similar tax.
The French Quarter Economic Development District, which is governed by the members of the New Orleans City Council, will consider a resolution on Thursday to announce its intent to call another election in April to reinstate the tax. The resolution also gives notice of a public hearing on the tax on Jan. 14.
The current tax, first approved by voters in 2015, adds a .2495 percent sales tax to purchases made within the French Quarter. But it expires at the end of the year. And on Dec. 5, French Quarter residents overwhelmingly voted to reject a ballot measure to renew the tax, 595 no votes to 297 yes votes.
The ballot measure fell apart after differences between Mayor LaToya Cantrell and the French Quarter Management District over how the proceeds should be spent. Broadly, Cantrell wanted the money to partially fund a civilian patrol that focused on quality of life issues, while the FQMD wanted the money to fund the French Quarter Task Force, which pays off-duty NOPD officers to patrol the neighborhood.
Although there were some compromises, Cantrell ruled out some major components of the FQMD plan. Key among them was a FQMD demand for a cooperative endeavor agreement with the city that would give them full control over the funds.
Ultimately, it was Cantrell’s plan that was on the ballot on Dec. 5, not FQMD’s. As a result, the FQMD board ended up formally opposing the tax and urging residents to vote against it, which likely played a significant role in the ballot measure’s failure.
It’s unclear whether the Cantrell administration is going to again push for its own plan, or whether it will leave the issue up to the City Council and FQMD. Cantrell’s office did not respond to an immediate request for comment.
The FQMD appears determined to renew the fight for its own plan. At a board meeting on Wednesday, the FQMD board adopted goals for 2021, including passing the sales tax “with the funds coming to the FQMD.”
From the time the tax first went into effect in 2015, the proceeds have been used exclusively to fund Louisiana State Police patrols in the French Quarter and surrounding areas. Over that time, their presence in the quarter has come under fire. Critics complained that the State Police were expensive and unaccountable.
The arrangement has also attracted criticism, and lawsuits, over state trooper conduct and use of force. The state police in New Orleans were never held to the same accountability and reform standards that NOPD officers are subject to through an ongoing federal consent decree.
Over the course of 2020, the Cantrell administration and the FQMD rolled out differing plans for how the money should be used in 2021 and beyond. They had one central detail in common: the money will no longer go to the State Police.
But after that similarity, the plans diverged.
The FQMD, on the one hand, wanted to use the money to fund the French Quarter Task Force, which it has administered since 2015. That program had previously been funded through annual contributions from New Orleans and Company, a publicly funded, private marketing agency for the city’s tourism industry. But, in part due to the coronavirus-related economic crisis, those payments are no longer coming in, leaving the French Quarter Task Force with no funding source.
Cantrell on the other hand, wanted to use the money to expand the newly created Grounds Patrol Division of the city’s Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness to create new civilian patrols in the French Quarter.
A key sticking point for the Cantrell administration was that the FQMD wanted the city to give it full control over the funds. Administration officials argued that they couldn’t, or at least shouldn’t, be handing over public funds to an unelected, unaccountable body.
FQMD took issue with the idea of civilian patrols instead of certified law enforcement officers. Board members argued that it was still unclear what enforcement powers the grounds patrol would actually have, and pointed to a similar, ill-fated attempt under former-Mayor Mitch Landrieu.
The Cantrell administration tried to compromise a bit. Instead of using all the money for the grounds patrol, the mayor suggested using half for the grounds patrol and the other half for officers. But the FQMD ultimately didn’t bite and voted to formally oppose the tax.
While we don’t know exactly what the new ballot initiative will say, it will be slightly different from the Dec. 5 version. Karley Frankic, executive director of the FQMD, pointed out on Wednesday that the state constitution doesn’t allow a political subdivision, such as the French Quarter Economic Development District, to submit the same tax proposition more than once within a six month period. Frankic said that will force the April ballot initiative to be “substantially different” from the December one.
The first change Frankic mentioned was to the size of the tax itself. Instead of a .2495 percent sales tax, the new ballot initiative will be for a .245 percent tax, she said. The purposes of the tax will also be different.
“Instead of it being broadly for public safety, they’re crafting language about [law enforcement] patrols and homeless services,” she said. “And the number that the city attorney thought would be acceptable to be a large enough change would be instead of .2495 it would be .245.”
It appears that the FQMD is going for the same goal it had the last go around: get the City Council to approve a cooperative endeavor agreement that would give them full control over the funds.
“As soon as that action is taken on Thursday, we will begin to negotiate, once again, on a CEA,” board member Jeremy DeBlieux said on Wednesday.
When asked where Cantrell stood on the proposal, DeBlieux said “we don’t know yet.” Frankic pointed to a recent article from WWLTV, in which administration official Joshua Cox spoke about the importance of the quarter cent sales tax and supplemental French Quarter patrols in general. Still, according to the article, the administration “wants a new long-term agreement on how the money would be spent and a new advisory board to come up with a security plan for the French Quarter.”
At this point, both sides appear to have the power in the negotiations. Cantrell, on the one hand, will need to approve any agreement with the FQMD. The FQMD, meanwhile, has shown its power and willingness to sink the tax altogether if they don’t get a satisfactory agreement, as it did just days before the Dec. 5 vote when it formally came out in opposition of the ballot measure.