Bill may spawn taxing district in Quarter to pay for crime patrols

Posted on: May 5 2009 | Posted in: Latest News
Bruce Eggler, Time Picayune

If the Legislature agrees, voters in the French Quarter and a slice of Faubourg Marigny will be asked to decide whether they want to become New Orleans' newest security tax district.

The board of the French Quarter-Marigny Historic Area Management District voted Monday to ask the Legislature to authorize an election on a plan to impose a fee or tax increase on all property in the French Quarter, including the strip between Canal and Iberville streets, and about half of the Marigny Triangle.

Aside from hiring an executive director, all the money, tentatively estimated at $1.3 million a year, would by law have to be spent on enhancing safety and security in the district.

Details of the new services have not been worked out, but they probably would include patrols by private security agencies or off-duty New Orleans police officers, and perhaps measures such as installing more crime cameras.

In recent years, voters in more than 20 New Orleans neighborhoods have agreed to tax themselves to pay for extra services, primarily security patrols, although the most recent such election, in the Maple Street area Uptown, failed in April.

Winning approval in the French Quarter, where many residents and small business owners traditionally have been highly mistrustful of city government and reluctant to pay extra taxes, could be difficult, and a recent public forum revealed continuing suspicion of the idea.

At the forum, longtime Quarter resident Ann Masson raised what could be one of the chief arguments against the proposal: Even though the new security services are supposed to be in addition to the "base-line" police services the city already provides in the area, the city is reluctant to define what those services are, meaning it could be difficult to keep the Police Department from shifting resources to other parts of the city once the added services paid for by residents come on line.

Although businesses would pay a large part and perhaps most of the new district's revenue, the proposal's fate will lie solely in the hands of people who live and are registered to vote in the Quarter and a small, mostly commercial slice of Marigny.

However, Monday's unanimous vote by a board comprising representatives of the district's residential, retail and hotel interests, who for years have spent more time quarreling than cooperating, could be a sign that times have changed.

Developer Darryl Berger, chairman of the French Quarter-Marigny district's board, said the vote showed that the tax district may be "an idea whose time has come."

The positions taken by the boards of French Quarter residential organizations could prove to be crucial.

Details of the new taxes have yet to be nailed down, but tentative plans call for imposing a $185 annual fee on any residential building with fewer than five units and on each individual condominium.

Small commercial properties, defined as those that pay less than $50,000 a year in property taxes, and apartment buildings with five or more units would be asked to pay $395 a year.

Instead of a flat fee, commercial properties that pay more than $50,000 a year in taxes, such as large hotels, would pay an additional 2.5 mills a year in property tax, amounting to about a 2 percent increase.

The fees and tax increases would end by 2014 unless renewed by the voters.

The plan presented at an April 14 forum at the Astor Crowne Plaza Hotel called for spending 50 percent of the new district's revenue on safety and security and 50 percent on infrastructure improvements and stepped-up code enforcement. Backers eventually decided that limiting the proposal to fighting crime and increasing security, at least for the first few years, would increase their chance of winning approval at the polls.

The French Quarter-Marigny Historic Area Management District was created by the Legislature in 2007 to provide infrastructure improvements and enhanced services in the Quarter and part of Marigny. The goal was to repair the Quarter's post-Katrina "tarnished image" and revive its slumping tourism industry.

However, the agency has been hamstrung by a lack of money. The Legislature voted last year to give it $1 million, but Gov. Bobby Jindal vetoed the money, leaving the board almost penniless.

Besides the Quarter, the management district includes a roughly two-block-wide swath of Marigny centered on heavily commercial Frenchmen Street.

Some Marigny residents said it would make sense to include the rest of the Marigny Triangle, which is largely residential, in the security tax district, but the board decided against that Monday.

Besides authorizing an election on the proposed fees and tax increases, the Legislature would have to amend the current law to remove a provision barring the management district from levying taxes. Sen. Ed Murray, D-New Orleans, already has introduced a bill doing that, although the bill would have to be considerably amended to reflect the details of the plan approved Monday.

Murray's bill says the vote on the tax proposal would have to coincide with a mayoral or congressional election, meaning it probably could not occur until February 2010, and the district would not receive its first tax revenue until 2011.