Fair Play, Fair Share, Part 2: A Fight and a Fundraiser

Within the past year, New Orleans has hosted 18 million visitors. These people have eaten in the finest restaurants, stayed at the nicest hotels, and yet, as previously reported, only 1.5% of the hotel tax returns to the city of New Orleans.

Despite the large dollar amounts generated by tourism, the citizens of New Orleans do not have decent streets to drive on, water good enough to drink without having to frequently boil it, or an adequate guarantee that our homes won’t flood. None of this has to be our normal, but it is. Nevertheless, just because it has been the case for a long time, just because it’s our normal, doesn’t make it right.

The question then becomes, how can the city of New Orleans acquire revenue owed to it? Can it be acquired without adding a heavier burden onto the backs of the poor? Imagine improvements to the infrastructure of the city that don’t involve paying the ludicrous multi-thousand dollar bills handed out by the New Orleans Sewage & Water Board due to the city’s rusting pipes, or paying the heavy fines acquired from suspect traffic cams. Imagine if New Orleans were actually receiving its fair share.

“Ladies and gentlemen of the City of New Orleans,” a charming male voice boomed through the room.  “Please, welcome Latoya Cantrell.”

On March 30th, Mayor Cantrell’s political action committee (PAC) held a fundraiser at the Eiffel Club. Action New Orleans was in high spirits. While they don’t yet have a victory in hand, the mayor’s PAC is on its way. House Bill522 and HB523 would enable the city to reacquire taxes which were formerly tied up in the development of the Superdome and the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center. HB 544, which is also currently in committee before the Louisiana state legislature, would provide much-needed revenue through an agreement with the city’s gaming industry.

During one of the brief moments between the glad-handing and the photo-taking (the mayor truly lives up to her reputation of willingness to engage with people) Mayor Cantrell and I held a conversation about her determination to see that New Orleans receive its fair share. It’s something that comes up frequently in conversation with her.

#FairShare is an attempt by the city to wrest money from the state, from the convention center, from the pockets of others to be used to help with our water problems, crumbling roads, and other infrastructure issues. “Fair share goes so far,” says Cantrell. “It’s more than looking at tourism dollars. It’s about each and every aspect and in every corner where we, as a city, are looking internally as well as externally.”

“So, internally,” she asks, “are there dollars that we’re leaving on the table that we’re not collecting adequately? Do we need to hire auditors to ensure that we are doing our due diligence?” She continues, answering her own questions, “And yes we do, and yes, we are.

“Is it about collecting $20 million in revenue of parking tickets for delivery companies that have been uncollected for years? No, more; meaning we have to get our fair share.”

One of those big externalities goes to the Convention Center, which has a staggering $235 million in a reserve fund. However, this contrasts with a renovation and new hotel at a cost of over $550 million. In addition, the convention center authority and tourist board are desirous of tax incentives through waivers and land use for the developers which some, including the mayor, believe the city can ill afford. Instead, Mayor Cantrell believes a $75 million dollar share of the reserve should go directly to the city to improve aging infrastructure.

“Right now the top priority in the City of New Orleans is truly around infrastructure. Everything touches it. Everything matters as relates to that. And so if we want to continue to call our city home, and to ensure that she’s around for another 300 years, we have work to do, and that work is being an advocate for our city in terms of fair share.”

As she pointed out where tourism is concerned, our beautiful city only gets, at most, 1.5% of the tax revenue. “Over $200 million a year, right here,” she repeats, “and the city of New Orleans, meaning your city government, gets about $20 million of that.”

She added, “I’m trying to do the best that I can to only get a little more of what we generate. And that cannot come initially off of me going to you, the taxpayers, asking you to put up a little bit more.”

“I appreciate each and every one of you who have been consistent, and you have been steadfast in your support, not just about me but for the city of New Orleans, and getting our fair share.”

Who could argue with that? Governor John Bel Edwards, and the heads of the New Orleans tourism industry. One is left to question why. More to come.

If you’d like to support the effort to put forth by Mayor Cantrell, you can do so by participating in a letter campaign through Action New Orleans.

Michael David Raso has worked as a writer, editor, and journalist for several different publications since graduating from the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. View part 1 of this series here.

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