The French Quarter Task Force, which provides supplemental, off-duty police patrols in the French Quarter, ran out of funds and suspended operations on Sunday. And now, New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell and the agency that runs the task force are pointing fingers at each other over who’s to blame.
On Monday, Cantrell’s Director of Strategic Initiatives Joshua Cox appeared at a press conference accusing the French Quarter Management District, which has administered the task force program since 2016, of mismanaging its funds.
“To simplify all of this, the FQMD made a promise to voters and said they were going to fund something,” Cox said on Monday. “Through either incompetence or mismanagement that was untrue. And then they issued a press release asking for public money.”
The press conference came a day after the FQMD issued a press release accusing the city of “withholding” $327,000 in funds that had been previously dedicated to paying for Louisiana State Police patrols in the French Quarter.
Cantrell, the City Council and FQMD are now working on a short-term solution to restart the patrols. The city and FQMD both appear supportive of a plan to use some of that $327,000 to temporarily keep the program running. But deep disagreements remain over who’s to blame, whether money was truly “withheld” by the city and what the long-term solution should be.
The debate has implications for an upcoming ballot measure in April when French Quarter residents will vote on whether to pass a quarter-cent sales tax that would provide an estimated $2.5 million a year for the next five years to the FQMD, mostly to fund the task force patrols. Cantrell’s office has been firmly opposed to that plan. A quarter-cent tax was in place from 2016 until last year, when voters rejected a renewal.
“The Mayor’s Office has been against the ballot language from the beginning,” Cox said. “It’s a basic principle of good governance that the people who are managing taxpayer money need to be directly elected and accountable to those very taxpayers, period. That’s not the case with what’s being proposed.”
The recent dust-up is part of a months-long debate between Cantrell’s office and the FQMD over the future of supplemental security patrols in the French Quarter. From 2016 until last year, $6.7 million in public funds were available to provide supplemental patrols through the French Quarter Task Force and a separate arrangement with the Louisiana State Police.
But all of that money stopped flowing last year. The task force had been funded through annual $1.2 million contributions from New Orleans and Co. — a private, publicly funded marketing agency for the city’s tourism industry. But New Orleans and Co. cut that agreement short as it saw its revenue collections plummet as a consequence of the coronavirus crisis.
The State Police presence was more costly. It was partially funded through contributions from New Orleans and Co. the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center. Those contributions were also cut off last year. But the primary funding source for the State Police was the quarter-cent sales tax, sometimes referred to as the “quarter for the Quarter.”
That tax was approved by French Quarter residents in 2015 for a period of five years, and it expired at the end of 2020. The city attempted to renew the tax through a ballot measure in December, but it was rejected with 595 no votes and 297 yes votes. FQMD was instrumental in the ballot measure’s failure by voting to formally oppose the measure and urging the small number of French Quarter residents who had a say on the ballot measure to vote no.
The debate was over how the money should be spent. For the last five years, the money was used exclusively to pay the State Police. But neither the FQMD nor the city wanted to continue that arrangement.
The FQMD wanted the money to fund the French Quarter Task Force to backfill the funding they lost from New Orleans and Co. Vitally, they wanted the city to sign an agreement prior to the ballot measure vote that would give them full authority over the funds.
Cantrell had another plan in mind. Her office wanted to use the money to fund citizen patrols in the French Quarter through the newly created Grounds Patrol Division in the city’s Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness.
Cantrell’s office argued it was simply bad governance to hand over public funds to an unelected, unaccountable body. The FQMD argued that civilian patrols wouldn’t have the same authority or be able to achieve nearly as much as off-duty NOPD officers.
Cantrell ultimately put her own plan on the ballot by refusing to sign an agreement to hand over the funds to the FQMD. But when voters rejected that ballot measure in December, the FQMD immediately began working with the City Council to offer a new ballot measure that would align with its original plan and give it full control over the funds.
The City Council, acting in its authority as the French Quarter Economic Development District, voted to place a new renewal measure on the April 24 ballot that would re-establish the “quarter for the Quarter.” But unlike the 2015 ballot measure — which gave the Economic Development District control of the money — this one would give FQMD the authority to manage the funds. The council voted to put the measure on the April ballot over stern objections from the Cantrell administration.
At Monday’s press conference, Cox pointed to the suspension of the French Quarter Task Force as more proof that the FQMD shouldn’t be trusted to manage public funds.
“One of the reasons we’re out here is to set the record straight. The FQMD is an organization that is, number one, unelected. Number two, they’re not actually directly accountable to voters. And number three, they’ve demonstrated to voters as of their actions yesterday that they can’t even manage private funds. So it’s foolish to think we should be handing over money to [the FQMD].”
He said that when FQMD campaigned against the December ballot measure, they said that their reserves would allow them to continue funding the program until at least March.
“They were telling people, ‘Hey, no need to renew the quarter for the Quarter in December, because we pledge to you that we are going to keep this task force going until the next ballot,’ Cox said. “That simply wasn’t true.”
In an interview, FQMD board chair and Brennan’s General Manager Christian Pendleton said that Cox’s statements were grossly mischaracterizing what FQMD promised. He said that the FQMD only promised to keep the program going as long as they had reserve funds available, and had estimated that would come in March.
“I think it’s unfortunate that the administration continues to mislead the residents and citizens of New Orleans by providing inaccurate information,” he said. “Yeah we missed our target, but we missed our target by two weeks. We didn’t miss it by six months.”
Pendleton said that the estimations were short in large part due to the resignation of the volunteer coordinator of the task force, Robert Simms. Simms, who helped develop the task force alongside entrepreneur Sideney Torres, has been managing the program as a volunteer for years. But he resigned that position at the end of 2020.
“Since he left as a volunteer, we’ve had to spend more money to have NOPD supervisors and OPSE do things [Simms] used to do. That’s why our money dwindled faster than we were expecting. When we were talking to voters in November and the beginning of December, we didn’t know Bob was leaving, and we didn’t know what the expense would be if he left.”
The FQMD has fired accusations at the city this week as well. On Sunday, the day the task force was suspended, the FQMD sent out the release claiming that the city was “withholding” $327,000 in funds for supplemental patrols in the French Quarter. On Monday, Cox said that simply wasn’t true.
“I think it’s an attempt to mislead unfortunately,” he said.
The $327,000 is what’s left over from the now-expired sales tax. The city stopped paying for those patrols last year. That money has ever flowed directly to the FQMD, Cox said. In addition, the funds are controlled by the City Council in its capacity as the French Quarter Economic Development District.
“I mean, there’s no way for the Mayor’s Office to withhold this money because, again, it’s not the mayor’s money,” Cox said.
Regardless of those disagreements, Cantrell appears prepared to release at least some of this money to temporarily prop up the program.
“Right now, we’re in the middle of a crisis,” Cox said. “Let’s do what needs to be done to get these patrols up and running tomorrow or the next day.”