To hear Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s chief strategist tell it, the gossamer patchwork of crime-fighting methods in the French Quarter is hanging by a thread.

That thread is the hope that voters in New Orleans’ oldest neighborhood willingly add a quarter-cent tax to every purchase at a shop or restaurant for the next five years.

That sales tax, which amounts to almost 25 cents for every $100 spent and could add up to $2 million a year, would pay for a permanent detachment of State Police troopers to guard the French Quarter’s streets and uplift its national reputation.

Without it, Landrieu’s strategist Ryan Berni warned, City Hall cannot guarantee that the host of public safety endeavors, put in place after a nursing student was gunned down on Bourbon Street more than a year ago, will continue much past Christmas.

“If residents decide to vote it down, it’s unclear any of these resources would be there Jan. 1,” Berni said.

The vote on the tax is scheduled Oct. 24. Early voting begins Saturday (Oct. 10). Passing the tax would boost the overall sales tax rate in the Quarter to almost 9.25 percent on retail sales and to almost 10 percent in restaurants.

City Hall, including the mayor and the City Council, has championed the tax as a linchpin to what could be $4.5 million a year devoted to curbing armed robberies, theft, weapons, fights, and violence in general on New Orleans’ hardest-partying thoroughfares.

But not everyone is convinced the measure is the best way forward. Larry Lane, a French Quarter resident, said he would rather see Landrieu establish a clear plan for rebuilding a depleted New Orleans Police Department to ensure the entire city’s safety beyond the next five years.

“I see the specific plan here” for the state troopers, he said during a public hearing about the tax held this week at the Omni Royal Hotel. “What I don’t see is a similar plan for the rest of the city.”

The idea for the tax germinated during talks among French Quarter organizations, residents and business owners, city officials, and hospitality industry leaders in the wake of a violent shooting in June 2014 that wounded nine people and killed Brittany Thomas, 21, of Hammond.

In the months that followed, Gov. Bobby Jindal agreed to send a contingent of State Police to patrol the French Quarter.

City Hall set up NOLA Patrol, a civilian watchdog force intended to handle quality-of-life problems that often take up much of a police officer’s time.

Sidney Torres, the former French Quarter garbage company magnate, established in February a squad of off-duty NOPD officers to patrol in Polaris off-road vehicles.

And The Ernest N. Morial Convention Center and the New Orleans Convention & Visitors Bureau ponied up $2.5 million in April to further pay for policing efforts.

The need for bolstering policing in the French Quarter is apparent, according to statistics compiled by the Bureau of Governmental Research. That nonpartisan watchdog group, which supports the tax plan, found that crime in the French Quarter had jumped 55 percent overall between 2010 and 2014. During the same time, the number of NOPD officers assigned to the 8th District, which includes the Quarter, fell by 35 percent.

The necessary bureaucratic hoops that led to the sales tax proposal can appear confusing. The City Council had to establish an “economic development district,” which it will govern, in order to request the tax. That district extends beyond the traditional boundaries of the Quarter to include the downriver side of Canal Street, the lakeside of Rampart Street, Armstrong Park and the downriver side of Esplanade Avenue.

Only voters within those borders can weigh in on the tax proposal. And the tax expires on Dec. 31, 2020. Voters would have to vote again to keep it going beyond that.

While the economic development district technically could use the new tax revenue for capital projects and other programs, the city signed an agreement with the State Police promising that all money raised would only be used to pay for a detachment of at least 30 troopers dedicated to the French Quarter. Those troopers would live in the New Orleans area, ending the need to bus State Police in from other parishes for short stints or to house them in downtown hotels.

“We know we can’t do that forever, and so now we’re trying to create permanent, full-time, highly trained, locally living State Police for a permanent detachment in the French Quarter,” said Steve Perry, president and CEO of the visitors bureau. “And that’s what the (economic development district) allows us to do.”

Hospitality industry leaders also agreed to continue paying $2.5 million a year to finance the Polaris patrols of detailed NOPD officers, also known as the French Quarter Task Force. Torres handed the reins of the program to the French Quarter Management District in June.

That $2.5 million would be broken down as follows:

  • $1 million from the Convention & Visitors Bureau and the New Orleans Tourism & Marketing Corp. from self-assessed payments to cover marketing costs.
  • $1 million from the convention center
  • $500,000 from the city’s share of self-assessed payments from hotels and motels for capital improvements, public safety measures and other efforts to improve the quality of life in New Orleans’ downtown core.

While not directly tied to the success of the tax proposal, the hospitality industry’s share would be thrown into uncertainty should it fail at the ballot box, Perry said.

“We’d all have to go back to the drawing board and figure out what to do because without this, we wouldn’t have the resources to protect the French Quarter to the level of safety that we want it to be,” he said.

From the Times-Picayune