Mayor LaToya Cantrell put a timeline Wednesday on her effort to persuade city, state and tourism industry leaders to agree to divert some tax revenue to New Orleans infrastructure projects, saying she wants to have an agreement hashed out with those groups before the Legislature meets in April.
She also said her plan to get the city “its fair share” does not rely solely on pulling funds from the tourism industry, and that she has continued to comb through the couch cushions at City Hall to find other funding for the struggling Sewerage & Water Board.
Cantrell, who last year became the latest New Orleans mayor to urge tourism and sports leaders to cede a share of their hotel tax revenue to City Hall, gave residents an update on her effort via a live discussion streamed on Facebook on Wednesday.
“My goal is to … announce a unified plan to fix government in the city before the legislative session,” Cantrell told her 16,000 Facebook followers.
“When toilets flush in New Orleans, everybody wins. When they don’t, our businesses lose, and residents lose," she said. "We need to get away from the boil water advisories, and we cannot do that if our infrastructure doesn’t improve.”
Cantrell in October first floated the idea of asking tourism and sports industry leaders to help finance an estimated $81 million a year in upgrades to the S&WB's water and drainage systems.
The idea was panned by the powerful state Senate President John Alario of Westwego, called a "heavy lift" by state Sen. J.P. Morrell of New Orleans and derided by Gov. John Bel Edwards.
The proposal hasn't gained the support of the four agencies that currently split the roughly $160 million in tax revenue that Cantrell wants: the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center; the Louisiana Stadium and Exposition District, popularly known as the Superdome Commission; New Orleans & Co., the city's main convention and tourism promotion agency; and the New Orleans Tourism Marketing Corp.
Their money largely comes from a tax on hotel guests in New Orleans; the Convention Center also benefits from a separate sales tax on food and beverage purchases at city restaurants and bars.
The Convention Center, which has a $52 million operating budget but is sitting on about $235 million in reserves, says that all of its funding is tied up in current and planned projects, such as a hotel on Convention Center boulevard and the ongoing revamp of that street.
Other entites also claim that they need the funding for their own priorities and for promoting the city to the 18 million visitors who arrive here each year.
A political action committee has been launched to educate residents on the effort, and Cantrell has taken to touting the idea as a logical next step to plans to split the Audubon Commission's tax revenue between a total of four parks and recreation agencies.
But she said tourism industry leaders aren't the only sources she'll be tapping to fill an "infrastructure and maintenance fund" the City Council created at her request recently.
The city could go after about $26 million in unpaid traffic tickets she says it is owed, as well as unpaid invoices to insurance companies whose patients use the city's EMS services to get to and from area hospitals. And she again touted her demand to the Superdome Commission for unpaid rent she says it owes for its use of a city-owned portion of Champions Square.
"I’m all in, because I know that this is the right thing to do," Cantrell told viewers. "But I can’t do this alone. It’s going to be the will of the people that gets us our fair share."