Members of the New Orleans City Council voted Thursday to place a ballot initiative on the April 24 election ballot to reinstate a quarter cent sales tax to pay for supplemental police patrols in the French Quarter.
A similar tax was approved by voters in 2015 and expired at the end of 2020. In December, voters rejected a ballot measure to renew the quarter cent sales tax with 595 no votes to 297 yes votes. The newly proposed sales tax, like the expired tax, would only be subject to purchases within the French Quarter, and will be decided by the relatively small group of residents who reside within those same boundaries.
The measure failed in December after disagreements between Mayor LaToya Cantrell’s administration and the French Quarter Management District — a state-created body of appointees, created after Hurricane Katrina to revitalize the neighborhood — over who should have control over the funds.
In the runup to the December election, the city refused to sign an agreement that would give the French Quarter Management District, or FQMD, control over the money, arguing that it was an unaccountable and unelected body. The FQMD ultimately urged residents to vote the ballot measure down.
The same debate was on display on Thursday, when the council met in its capacity as the French Quarter Economic Development District, which managed how the proceeds of the previous sales tax were spent.
Under the ballot language approved Thursday, the money generated from this new tax would be managed instead by the FQMD. It would be primarily used to fund the French Quarter Task Force — a program that pays off-duty NOPD officers to patrol the area and is best recognized by the blue-light Smart Cars they drive.
“The core issue here is really around good governance,” Josh Cox, a senior adviser to Cantrell, said during the meeting. “And the principle is simple: when taxpayer money is collected, the people who are administering that money should be directly elected by taxpayers.”
The tax is estimated to bring in about $2 million a year. According to the ballot language, the first $2 million raised by the tax has to be used for supplemental police patrols. Anything above that can be split between police patrols and other public safety programs, including “homeless assistance.” If approved by voters, the tax would go into effect in May and would expire in 2026.
The decision to include the FQMD in the ballot measure seemed to be motivated by the FQMD’s apparent influence over the vote. Following their dispute with Cantrell, FQMD members came out against the December renewal in the run-up to the election.
“We’re trying to find something palatable,” Councilwoman Kristin Palmer, who sponsored the resolution, said on Thursday. “After the defeat on Dec. 5 of the previous initiative, my office thought it was prudent to put this matter in the hands of the various organizations in the French Quarter that work to represent voters.”
But not all council members were enthusiastic about handing the money over to an unelected body. Councilwoman Cindy Nguyen offered an amendment to change the language in the proposition to remove the FQMD as the administrator of the funds.
FQMD Executive Director Karley Frankic was at Thursday’s meeting and argued against Nguyen’s amendment. She referred to the FQMD’s role as a form of “checks and balances.”
“I think any amendment that removed those checks and balances is not going to be passed by the voters,” she said. “We have spent months working with the voters, working with businesses, to put forward ballot language that was vastly different from what they saw in December.”
The amendment failed, with only Council members Jay Banks and Nguyen voting to adopt it. The motion to add the proposal to the April ballot without the amendment passed on a 5-1 vote, with only Banks voting no.
Formerly for State Police, new tax would be used for Task Force
The sales tax that expired at the end of last year had been solely used to pay for Louisiana State Police patrols in and around the French Quarter. In the runup to the December election, the city and FQMD presented different plans for how the money should be used if the tax was renewed, neither of which included the State Police.
The Cantrell administration wanted to use the money for a mix of supplemental patrols by off-duty NOPD officers and patrols by a civilian “grounds patrol” within the city’s department of homeland security. The FQMD wanted the money to fund the French Quarter Task Force.
From 2015 until this year, the task force had been funded through annual $1.2 million contributions from New Orleans and Company, a publicly-funded, private marketing agency for the city’s tourism industry. But New Orleans and Company pulled out of that arrangement due to the economic effects of the coronavirus crisis, leaving the task force without any funding source.
Now, the FQMD wants to use the quarter-cent sales tax to replace those missing funds.
Prior to offering her unsuccessful amendment, Nguyen warned against handing the money over to the appointed body, saying it lacked accountability.
“I just again feel that when you have non-elected officials administering and providing oversight over public funds, it puts pause to me,” she said. “We hear it all the time in reference to different organizations not being an elected body and not being held accountable to funds by the public.”
Cox, representing the Cantrell administration, called the ballot language “fundamentally bad government” during Thursday’s meeting.
“Effectively this ballot language gives control of this revenue to the FQMD, and kind of removes the City Council’s ability as a body to control how the money is spent via contract. This is a really big sea-change from what has existed before and the core problem goes back to something very simple: taxpayer dollars need to be managed by people who are directly elected by taxpayers.”
The FQMD’s board is made up of 13 members, many of whom represent business interests. It also includes one City Council appointment, two mayoral appointments and a member of the public Vieux Carre Commission. Frankic argued that the FQMD had a proven track record of transparency.
“FQMD has a track record of accountability and transparency by providing balance sheets and profits and loss statements at monthly meetings,” she said. “We have a security enforcement committee meeting where the patrols are reviewed by the committee. We have an active relationship with the NOPD eight district.”
In addition to that, Palmer added language to the ballot language to require quarterly budget and expenditure reports to the City Council. Palmer also argued that oversight and transparency issues can be addressed through a cooperative endeavor agreement between the city and FQMD.
But Cox pushed back, saying that the council’s ability to negotiate through a CEA would be limited after passing a ballot initiative that gave the FQMD full authority over managing those dollars. FQMD won’t be able to access the money until a CEA is signed.
Palmer also argued that the FQMD has always administered the French Quarter Task Force, and this was simply creating dedicated funding for it. But Cox again pushed back, saying that the major change was that the funding was coming directly from the public, rather than a private organization like New Orleans and Company.
“It doesn’t matter whether the ‘quarter for the Quarter’ was paying for the State Police, it doesn’t matter if it was paying for the French Quarter task force. I’m talking about the process and the principle,” he said.
Banks, the only member to vote against the ballot initiative, agreed with Cox.
“I’m not comfortable with having publicly raised tax dollars controlled by an entity that doesn’t have a publicly accountable individual there,” Banks said.