There was swift and angry reaction this week to the Feb. 27 city shutdown of an annual Mardi Gras flea market at the Blue Nile bar in the Faubourg Marigny — a market now in its 20th year of selling unique, handmade items at affordable prices. Field agents from the New Orleans Department of Revenue arrived, ticketed organizer Cree McCree, Blue Nile owner Jesse Paige and a bartender, and shut down the sale for not having a retail permit.
Technically, the agents were correct; McCree and Paige had no permit. But when Paige reported to the Bureau of Revenue the next day, he was quoted a laundry list of permits he would need to stage the event next year, including an occupational license ($200), a "mayoralty permit" ($500) and an approved revenue form from the city's Department of Safety & Permits. The grand total: $940.25 for a once-a-year market selling handmade masks and hats. Compounding the problem is the city's special-event permit literature, which lumps in extravaganzas like circuses and trade shows with modest events like the Mardi Gras market.
The outrageous fee structure may be the law but, as Dickens famously noted, sometimes the law is an ass. The city says it will enforce such laws across the board in response to public demand. That sounds fair, but cracking down on a once-a-year bazaar when the city has potentially millions of dollars outstanding in uncollected sales taxes only reinforces the impression, even if it's incorrect, that this was yet another case of Big Government picking on the little artist. It's a perception with a long and unfortunate history in New Orleans — as any Mardi Gras Indian or brass band member will tell you.
Mayor Mitch Landrieu's administration and Police Chief Ronal Serpas stumbled last year when the NOPD cracked down on brass band musicians on Bourbon and Frenchmen streets, using an antiquated ordinance that would have required musicians to be off the streets by 8 p.m. That law applied across the board, whether the musicians were in an entertainment district or a residential neighborhood. At the time, band members noted correctly, they were no louder than Quarter clubs that prop speakers in their doorways and blast canned pop music into the street all night. The city's hardline position in that case made it look like a pack of intractable bureaucrats, and it wisely backed off.
Fortunately, the administration seems to have learned from the mistake. Landrieu, who has spent years establishing himself as the lead spokesman for the cultural economy, at first issued a dry press release defending the city's position. ("As we increase field agents in the Bureau of Revenue, we will continue to communicate with residents and business owners about the types of permits needed for these types of events.") By midweek, however, his tone had changed. "These vendors are the heart and soul of New Orleans," he said at a press conference March 2. When Gambit asked him about the $940 fee quoted to Paige, Landrieu said, "That's not accurate." Informed that those were the numbers from the Bureau of Finance, Landrieu said, "You may have asked them the wrong question."
That's another problem. If city officials can't agree on the fees, it's no surprise artists and vendors don't know what to do. To that end, Scott Hutcheson, the mayor's point man on cultural affairs, has put together new materials that set forth the rules on what event promoters must do to comply with the law. He also put himself forward as a liaison for those who sell handmade goods. From now on, the first step in planning a bazaar or sale should be calling Hutcheson at 658-4258, or emailing him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Let him be your guide through the sometimes-confusing rules of the City of New Orleans and its Bureau of Revenue.
At the March 2 meeting, Deputy Mayor and CAO Andy Kopplin said the city wants everyone to have a fair chance to succeed. That's a laudable goal. The best way to achieve it is for the city to communicate clearly with artists and vendors — and to make sure city fees don't outstrip people's ability to pay.