On the Ballot

Should New Orleans renew French Quarter sales tax? Sidney Torres says yes; think tank says no

By Jeff Adelson

Source: The Times-Picayune | The New Orleans Advocate

December 3, 2020

A nonpartisan think tank recommends French Quarter voters not renew a roughly quarter-cent sales tax in the Vieux Carré on Saturday, citing lack of agreement over how the money should be spent. But a new campaign, including advertising by garbage mogul Sidney Torres, urges residents to extend the tax five years, saying keeping it alive will allow more negotiation over its uses.

The last-minute efforts come a week after the French Quarter Management District, a public board with representatives of most of the neighborhood’s organizations, asked voters to strike down the tax because of its disagreements with New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell’s administration over plans for the money.

The tax, now dedicated to public safety, is expected to bring in about $1.8 million a year. The key sticking point is how much revenue would go directly toward additional work shifts of New Orleans police officers versus a Cantrell administration plan to hire workers who would focus on low-level offenses.

The Bureau of Governmental Research, in a report Wednesday, was largely in favor of the tax itself, saying it is largely be paid by tourists and that increased public safety is a reasonable goal. However, the report said that without a firm plan in place or an agreement on how the money will be spent, the proposition is “premature.”

“With this in mind, the city should work to develop a consensus with French Quarter stakeholders on how to best enhance public safety,” the nonprofit said. “If this process results in another tax proposition, it is imperative that the parties involved establish clear spending and accountability plans before calling the election.”

Voters initially approved the sales tax for a five-year term in 2015, as one of a hodgepodge of funding measures aimed at beefing up the police presence in the Quarter. The sales tax went toward paying for Louisiana State Police troopers to help patrol the neighborhood, while tourism groups and other funding sources went toward separate initiatives such as the French Quarter task force, an effort to put police details on the street initially started by Torres and eventually taken over by the French Quarter Management District.

Regardless of what voters decide Saturday, the State Police patrols will stop at the end of December. The question is what happens to the rest of the money.

Under the Cantrell administration’s plan, the money would be split evenly between a revamped task force, which would keep its four-wheelers and smartphone app to call for officers, and a “grounds patrol” of unarmed municipal employees to handle less serious quality of life and code enforcement issues. The grounds patrol would have the ability to write citations for municipal offenses but not to make arrests.

The Management District initially pushed for all the money to go to sworn New Orleans police officers, though it later agreed to a 70-30 split between police and the grounds patrol. However, it was unable to win that concession from the Cantrell administration, prompting the Management District last week to recommend a no vote on the tax. Members doubted that the grounds patrol would do much to enhance safety.

At least one group has split off from the French Quarter Management District’s recommendation. French Quarter Citizens, a residents’ group that is represented on the district’s board, came out on Wednesday in favor of the tax.

Torres and others involved in the creation of the task force also launched a campaign this week to encourage residents to vote for the tax, said two of its members, Larry Lane and Bob Simms. While the deal currently on the table might not be everything that residents want, a vote against the measure would cut off all funding entirely, said Lane, who was involved in the task force and other public safety initiatives like SafeCam NOLA.

“Here’s the thing: If this tax isn’t approved on Saturday, the collection of the tax stops. It shuts down,” Lane said. “That means at some point in January or February, the task force shuts down. We won’t get more money into the fund until the voters approve a new tax” which could take most of next year.

Torres is planning to run ads promoting the tax in the waning days before the vote.

Lane, who said ideally he’d like to see 100% of the money go to police officers, said voting yes means just providing more time to negotiate.

“If we grow tourism we’re going to grow the amount of revenue that’s available.” he said. “Getting our economy restarted is all based on tourism, and people aren’t going to come to a city that isn’t safe. This keeps the French Quarter safe and gets jobs back as quickly as possible, and that’s what we need.”

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated when the State Police patrols will end.

EDITOR’S NOTE: This story was updated on Dec. 3, 2020, to include information about French Quarter Citizens coming out in favor of the sales tax.

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