Members of the New Orleans City Council and leaders of the Downtown Development District are at odds over whether more of the agency's money should be seized to pay for city priorities. Meanwhile, a lawsuit churns on in the courts alleging the city improperly withheld funds from the DDD to pay for its pension obligations.
During the agency's budget presentation last week, City Councilman Joe Giarrusso suggested that some of the district's operating expenses are unnecessary and that its property tax revenue shouldn’t be used to fund its lawsuit against City Hall.
The DDD will receive $8 million in annual operating revenue in 2019 and has about $3 million in reserves.
"You are asking the city of New Orleans to fund a lawsuit against the city of New Orleans," Giarrusso told agency head Kurt Weigle.
City Councilwoman Kristin Gisleson Palmer joined in, saying the district's work to secure and maintain parts of the French Quarter has been shoddy.
"I was out there cleaning up graffiti," she said. "The DDD wasn’t there. I was there. And I cleaned up a lot of graffiti."
Most of the French Quarter is outside the DDD's boundaries. Only the 100 block, between Iberville and Canal streets, is under its jurisdiction.
Weigle shot back that his organization's lawsuit to stop the city from withholding its funds to pay pension costs was necessary.
"Keep in mind, the revenue of the DDD comes from taxpayers downtown," he said. "I think there is a responsibility on behalf of the organization to stand up for its taxpayers and to ensure that DDD funds are spent downtown."
The organization levies a special property tax to pay for enhanced government services, capital projects and economic development efforts in the area bounded by Claiborne Avenue, Iberville, the river and the Pontchartrain Expressway.
Weigle said his organization needs things like an economic development department to help attract retail and other businesses to the Central Business District. And he denied that trash and graffiti abatement is lackluster in areas the DDD maintains.
Over the years, the organization has also built up a surplus to fund projects like the city's "low-barrier" homeless shelter, which opened this year, and upgrades to Duncan Plaza adjacent to City Hall.
But in this year's budget cycle, Mayor LaToya Cantrell's administration and the council are backing a slew of new initiatives, such as a 10 percent pay raise for 2,700 city workers, a new city "sobering center" for recovering drug and alcohol abusers, and new offices focused on youth and families, transportation and utilities.
At the same time, Cantrell will lose about $4 million in revenue under her plans to curtail the city's traffic camera program, heightening the pressure to find new revenue elsewhere.
The Downtown Development District was created by the state Legislature in 1974 as the nation’s first assessment-based business improvement district. It is charged with providing enhanced services to the downtown area in the areas of economic development, sanitation and safety. The agency is governed by an 11-member board that is appointed by local elected officials.