Annual fees collected with property taxes
By the late 1990s, some residents of New Orleans’ Lakeview neighborhood had grown frustrated and increasingly concerned about crime hitting their neighborhood.
“Crime was off the charts in the New Orleans area and it didn’t look like anybody in the government had any control or ideas to bring it into control,” said Henry F. Yoder Jr., a neighborhood activist. “We were very disillusioned. We also knew if it was going to be happening, it was up to us to make a difference.”
Lakeview’s response led to the first state-sanctioned crime prevention district.
Fifteen years later, at least 50 neighborhood crime prevention, enhancement and improvement districts have been created in state law. Voters in each district have to approve the levy a mandatory “parcel fee,” but when they do, the $50 to $500 annual fee is collected at the same time as property taxes.
Nearly all of the money generated is going to crime prevention, such as hiring extra patrols, installing cameras, improving lighting and attacking blighted property.
“It’s a neighborhood association on steroids,” LSU sociologist Ed Shihadeh said.
Collections totaled more than $5.5 million last year from 40 districts in Orleans, East Baton Rouge and Jefferson parishes. Homeowners in other neighborhoods will start paying or vote on whether to impose parcel fees on themselves in 2014.
As a legal entity of state government, each crime district is subject to public meetings, open records, budget and audit requirements.
The districts must file annual financial reports with the Louisiana Legislative Auditor. Records show most are complying.
Each member of each crime district board is required to file a personal financial disclosure with the Louisiana Board of Ethics. Are all those board members filing the required disclosures?
It’s hard to say. The Ethics Board is getting reports, said Kathleen Allen, administrator for the ethics agency, but the state doesn’t know the identity of all the board members.
It’s also difficult to determine how much of an impact the districts have on preventing crime. Statistics are gathered by law enforcement, but the locations of crimes do not generally coincide with the boundaries of specific crime districts. Instead they are gathered by police precinct or by some other broad geographical area.
Crime prevention district leaders still point to successes.
Two New Orleans crime districts, which are patrolled 24-7 by New Orleans police officers working overtime, report reductions in crimes of all types.
The districts provide patrol cars and cover overtime pay. The city assigns a police supervisor who coordinates patrols, shifting them around where they are needed.
In Lakeview, personal and property crimes totaled 626 in its first year of existence, according to New Orleans police Sgt. Joseph Bouvier, the Lakeview neighborhood supervisor. Last year, there were 275 total. Before the district was established, crimes topped 900.
“It’s hard to keep crime down. But compared to the rest of New Orleans, Lakeview is Mayberry,” said longtime Lakeview resident and former state Rep. Peppi Bruneau, whose legislation created the district.
His legislation is the general model that has been used to create crime districts.
In the New Orleans Mid-City Security District, community leaders compare the numbers before its 2009 activation and afterwards.
Crimes against people went down from an average 183 incidents annually to 122 and property crimes dropping from an average 1,289 to 742.
“We do feel that the security district has had a significant impact. The population is going up and the number of crimes is declining,” said Jim Olsen, president of the Mid-City district.
Ed Campanella, of Baton Rouge’s Shenandoah Estates district, said he feels the presence of off-duty sheriff’s deputies patrolling the neighborhood makes a difference.
“A deputy patrolling saw a guy in a pickup truck with TVs in the back of it. It turned out he had committed two or three burglaries within the neighborhood,” Campanella said.
“With the four hours we have every day, you are not going to catch everybody. It’s all about being preventative and creating a deterrent.”
The district lines of Shenandoah Estates coincide with the boundaries the East Baton Rouge Parish Sheriff’s Office uses to make its crime reports.
On the surface, the statistics show little difference because numbers on a wide range of crimes are collected. But serious crimes have declined from before the district was established in 2010.
For instance, in 2010, the sheriff counted 81 burglaries and two years later, the number fell to 58. The number of vehicle burglaries dropped from 92 to 78 during the same time period, according to Sheriff’s Office statistics.
“As a private citizen, when the concept first came out, and as a law enforcement officer, I questioned why should people have to pay more,” East Baton Rouge Sheriff Sid Gautreaux said.
“But the harsh reality is we will never have enough people to be where we want to be at times we need to be. This is a tool, a very beneficial tool when used correctly.”
Baton Rouge police Chief Carl Dabadie said the districts provide a service for a neighborhood that wants added security.
“Unfortunately, we are limited. We have to spread all over the city,” he said.
“It’s a plus for everyone,” Jefferson Parish Sheriff’s Office Col. John Fortunato said. “There are added security patrols in areas of the parish where there would be one or two cars.”
Proponents of the districts also say the crime districts help keep property values up.
“You see the direct benefit. You see the cops moving around. This stays right here in your own backyard,” said Charlie Miller, of Marrero’s Plantation Estates district.