Efforts to augment the NOPD’s reduced presence in the French Quarter with State Police troopers may have found a permanent funding source: a nearly 1/4-cent sales tax that could be levied throughout the district if its residents approve.
That tax, which would formally come through the creation of an economic development district covering the Quarter, would be combined with money from the hospitality industry and additional city funds to create a $4.5 million pool to pay for the beefed-up security presence.
That money would largely be drawn from visitors, officials said Wednesday as they highlighted the importance of getting crime in the area under control for both tourists and residents.
“In order for this city to work, it has to be safe,” Mayor Mitch Landrieu said at a news conference announcing the plan.
The sales-tax proposal, envisioned to last about five years, is the first long-term plan to emerge in response to high-profile violent crimes in the section of the city most frequented by tourists and an increased sense among many residents that the area is unsafe, especially as the New Orleans Police Department faces a manpower shortage.
“We’re in the midst of creating not the city we were but the city we always wanted to become,” Landrieu said.
The sales tax — technically capped at .2495 percent — would generate about $2 million a year, according to city estimates. That would be combined with about $2 million from hospitality groups and another $500,000 from a voluntary self-assessment that hotels approved last year. In addition, the city would continue spending $500,000 a year on additional New Orleans police details in the Quarter and on NOLA Patrol, a civilian force that is expected to take over some enforcement duties in the neighborhood later this year.
The precise limit of the tax was chosen because it will keep the total sales tax on food and beverages in the Quarter a hair under 10 percent.
The money would be used to extend the stay of State Police in the Quarter, providing funds for about 60 troopers including those on patrol, in plainclothes and in other capacities.
Overall, the effort is aimed at doubling the total number of officers from all agencies who are on the streets during peak hours such as Friday and Saturday nights.
City Councilwoman Nadine Ramsey, who represents the Quarter, will introduce measures to start the process of creating the district at Thursday’s council meeting. Plans are for that to be followed by a public hearing and a council vote on April 23.
If the plan passes the council and clears several more procedural hurdles — as it is expected to do — it will be put before the voters in the Quarter on the Oct. 24 ballot.
While groups including the French Quarter Management District, the French Quarter Business Association and the Convention and Visitors Bureau support the proposal, a city police union immediately denounced it, arguing that it ignores other areas of the city and that, should it be implemented, the money should go toward increasing pay or overtime for NOPD officers, not state troopers or others.
“Augmenting the NOPD’s police presence in only one district at an additional cost to the taxpayers is just bad policy,” Donovan Livaccari, an attorney for the Fraternal Order of Police, said in a statement. “Crime in the French Quarter might be the most highly visible and most publicized, but French Quarter residents aren’t the only ones who are suffering through increased crime due to a huge staffing deficiency.”
The idea of a special taxing district stems from planning that began after a highly publicized shooting on Bourbon Street last summer left a woman dead and nine people injured. Concerns about safety in the Quarter increased in the months that followed, eventually leading Bourbon Street businesses to fund their own police details, drawing in former trash magnate Sidney Torres IV — who publicly attacked Landrieu over crime in a series of TV ads — and convincing the CVB to pony up $2.5 million to keep State Police in the city until the end of this year.
Using a taxing district to pay for heightened security and other improvements in the French Quarter has been discussed for years, but it has never been able to make it past the district’s many fractious interest groups. In 2010, a proposed security district that would have been paid for with parcel fees was shot down by the Quarter’s voters, though that fee would have fallen more heavily on residents than the proposed sales tax.
Other ideas, such as 2012’s controversial idea of a “hospitality zone” to fund improvements and last year’s effort to hike occupancy taxes on hotels, never made it out of the Legislature.
Unlike many of those previous efforts, the proposed sales tax seems to have wide support among groups representing residents, the hospitality industry and Quarter businesses generally. Landrieu said after the news conference that such support was partly a sign that those groups realized the “missed opportunities” when they hadn’t been able to come together in the past.
It also likely reflects the target of the tax. Nine million tourists visit the Quarter each year, and they would likely bear the brunt of the levy.
Other proposals are still in the works or are being implemented. Wednesday marked the launch of a police detail paid for by Torres that will operate 24 hours a day and include three extra officers patrolling the Quarter on weekend nights.
Those officers will use Polaris utility vehicles, also donated by Torres, and will be tied into a French Quarter Crime Task Force app for smartphones.
The increased State Police presence will allow the city to redeploy its violent crime task force, which adds up to 16 additional officers to the Quarter, to other areas of the city, officials said.
State Rep. Helena Moreno, D-New Orleans, said she is still talking with officials in Gov. Bobby Jindal’s administration about finding other sources of money from the state to pay for public safety in New Orleans.
“It’s in the state’s best interest to protect not just the residents who are here but the nine million visitors,” she said.
Follow Jeff Adelson on Twitter, @jadelson.