Less than 26,000 people in New Orleans turned out to vote in the April 9 millage election to provide more money for the New Orleans Police Department (NOPD) and help pay firefighters, who are owed $60 million in pensions. That figure included roughly 5,000 citizens who voted early. That same weekend, an estimated 760,000 people attended the 33rd annual French Quarter Festival — almost 30 times the number of people who voted.
Those who turned out for the festival were rewarded with great music, food and glorious weather. Those who voted torpedoed the millage by a margin of 54-46 percent. The referendum's failure sends city leaders back to the drawing board to figure out where they might take $60 million out of the municipal budget.
According to an analysis by Ed Chervenak of the University of New Orleans Survey Research Center, early voters narrowly favored the millage, but Election Day voters rejected it in larger numbers. Moreover, 50 percent of voters in traditionally white neighborhoods approved the millage, while only 38 percent of voters in black neighborhoods supported it.
The only other item on that ballot was a proposal to sell $120 million in capital improvement bonds to fund street repairs and other infrastructure improvements. That proposition passed by about the same margin, with 53 percent approving the bond sale.
The results were a slap in the face to city officials who supported the public safety millage — among them Mayor Mitch Landrieu and NOPD Superintendent Michael Harrison. In the days before the vote, the two touted what they said was progress at NOPD, including a reduction in response times to emergency calls and a series of graduating classes that will put new officers on the streets. Clearly, that message wasn't received — or didn't resonate — with half of white voters and almost two-thirds of black voters.
Some have suggested that the police and fire millages should have been presented as separate ballot propositions, that voters might have looked more favorably on raising taxes to pay court-ordered pension payments to first responders. Maybe, maybe not. For whatever reasons, the two were bundled together, leaving New Orleanians to vote yea or nay on the whole package — and they voted nay.
Given that the bond issue passed, voters clearly considered the questions carefully and didn't just shoot down every proposal to raise money. The streets initiative, after all, will ultimately cause property taxes to go up. That being the case, there's only one conclusion that can be drawn: Landrieu and Harrison didn't get their message across on behalf of the police and fire millage increase.
All is not yet lost. The failed propositions can be resubmitted to voters later this year, when voter turnout will be significantly higher. However, higher turnout won't necessarily mean higher levels of support. Landrieu, the City Council, Harrison and others will have to do more to convince voters that these millage increases are necessary.
Messaging matters. That's the message of the April 9 election.