To keep French Quarter safer, New Orleans pushes for new sales tax in tourist district

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NEW ORLEANS — Following a rash of crime in the French Quarter — the city's historic jewel and prime tourism destination — city leaders are pushing ahead with a plan to raise $2 million a year to fund policing in the busy tourism district.

On Thursday, the City Council voted 6-0 to put the tax proposal on an Oct. 24 ballot. The 4,000 residents of the French Quarter will decide the fate of the tax plan.

The money would come from a quarter-cent sales tax the city would levy in the French Quarter. Combined with money from other tourism-related funds, city leaders say they hope to have about $4.5 million each year to pay for the beefed-up French Quarter policing plan.

City officials say the extra sales tax would mostly be paid by tourists, who make up the most customers in the Quarter. The new revenue would be used to pay to keep 45 state troopers assigned to the French Quarter on a long-term basis.

French Quarter advocates and business owners support the new tax.

"This is not good just for the French Quarter, but the entire city," Meg Lousteau, executive director of the Vieux Carre Property Owners, Residents and Associates citizens group, told the council.

City leaders were spurred into action after a string of armed robberies during the winter months alarmed business owners and residents in the Quarter.

In response to the spike in crime, people started posting signs throughout the Quarter in the run-up to Mardi Gras that read "Caution: Walk in Large Groups. We (heart) N.O.P.D. We Just Need More."

The French Quarter's narrow, 300-year-old streets contribute to its charm but also make it a haven for muggings, especially in the tourism and convention high season between October and March.

A Loyola University study of robberies in tourist areas during those months in 2007 and 2008 found visitors were the targets in 34 of 155 robberies. The study put some of the blame on outsiders themselves, many of whom apparently were inebriated and lured to unsafe places in search of drugs and sex.

After the outcry about the armed robberies, the city assigned more police officers and state troopers to the tourist district.

Since February, the number of armed robberies has declined. City crime data show about 13 armed robberies since Feb. 1. One person was killed in a March 21 shooting in the Quarter, however.

The proposed tax increase would set up a fund to pay for additional security for at least five years, at which point the tax would expire unless renewed by voters.

Ten years after Hurricane Katrina left the city devastated and empty, the Quarter has become a bustling place, attracting an estimated 9 million tourists a year.

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