In The News › Critics want self-supporting Audubon Nature Institute

Apr 14, 2014

Source: The Advocate

Filed under: Orleans Parish

Critics want self-supporting Audubon Nature Institute

By Andrew Vanacore

The Advocate

April 14, 2014

Jeff Thomas says there is no doubt about it: He killed the Audubon tax proposal.

That is to say, an outraged essay in his twice-weekly online newsletter thwarted the effort by the Audubon Nature Institute — keeper of the city’s zoo, aquarium and other attractions — to win approval of a property tax that would have helped pay for revamping and expanding the institute’s offerings for decades to come.

“My newsletter was the spark, but a whole movement was created as a result,” said Thomas, an Algiers computer consultant who launched his widely circulated jeremiad via email just a few weeks before the March 15 vote.

In truth, it is hard to know exactly why voters rejected the tax proposal by a nearly 2-to-1 margin, but if Thomas and Audubon’s other vocal critics are right, it could mean trouble for the institute and its longtime chief executive officer, Ron Forman.

Forman has until early in the next decade to persuade voters that Audubon deserves a long-term dedicated property tax. Two existing taxes, which helped remake the zoo and build the aquarium, won’t run out until then. So the institute is likely to come back in the meantime with a new proposal, perhaps for a smaller millage, or one that won’t last 50 years, as initially proposed.

But if the handful of activists who rallied against last month’s ballot measure have their way, the next measure also will fail. In their view, Audubon should be self-sustaining, not dependent on taxpayers.

And, they argue, it should take a backseat to other urgent priorities that need funding in a cash-strapped city — not least the parks and recreation programs in New Orleans that are free to the public, unlike Audubon’s ticket-only attractions.

“I think they should be weaning themselves from the millages they get now, which were intended for very specific projects,” said Debra Howell, a longtime Audubon gadfly. “They should learn to live within their means.”

Forman, who first took on the challenge of turning around a then-bedraggled Audubon Zoo in the 1970s, declined an interview request, but he stated the main thrust of his case for continued public support before last month’s vote.

Without continuing overhauls, Forman argued, Audubon’s aging attractions won’t be able to continue to draw the same large crowds of visitors they do now. And fewer admission-paying tourists will mean a declining stock of natural wonders to fire the imaginations of the city’s young people.

There’s also the broader economic impact to consider. A study commissioned by Audubon recently from LSU economics professor James Richardson estimated that Audubon will account for some $37 million in local and state tax collections this year, a figure that could rise to $70 million a decade from now.

In other words, voters may have to prime the pump with money for new and renovated attractions, but the result will be more visitors spending money at local businesses and filling government coffers.

This sort of debate has been going on for a long time, often with the same antagonists involved.

Keith Hardie, a lawyer who lives near Audubon Park, first went up against Forman during a debate that flared more than a decade ago over upgrades at the park’s golf course, the last big dust-up between Audubon and its neighbors.

As the neighbors describe it, construction fencing suddenly started going up around the golf course in the early 2000s. Instead of a modest renovation, as they say was originally planned, Audubon was intent on a $6 million rebuild, complete with a cafe and clubhouse looking out over the park’s lagoon and live oaks.

This helped crystallize the difference between Forman and his critics, who saw the idea as a needless encroachment on public space for the sake of making profits and expanding what they often refer to as Forman’s “Audubon Empire.”

“He’s sort of become the Robert Moses of New Orleans,” said Hardie, referring to the New York City “master builder” whose celebrated public works projects in the mid-20th century helped modernize New York — sometimes at the cost of displacing whole neighborhoods.

There is, of course, a grudging respect in this view. Even some of Forman’s antagonists acknowledge his successful rehabilitation of the zoo, which had endured many years of extremely bad press before he took over in the 1970s.

Mounting criticism culminated in a 1971 report from the Bureau of Governmental Research, which cited unlocked animal cages, “wire, nails and pieces of metal” found lying in animal enclosures and a generally “laissez faire” attitude toward protecting the animals from human guests. “The seals are constantly exposed to a rain of foreign objects,” the report noted.

Forman took over with a mandate from then-Mayor Moon Landrieu to turn things around — and a small new property tax to do it with. Then came the aquarium and Woldenberg Park on the riverfront — necessitating another tax — plus the insectarium on Canal Street, the Species Survival Center in Algiers and the Louisiana Nature Center in New Orleans East.

In part, Hardie interprets last month’s “no” vote as a blaring “enough!” from voters who would rather have their money go toward open, accessible parks and green space, rather than the “world-class” attractions pitched by Forman.

“That’s tourism,” said Hardie, who set up a political action committee to spend money on signs and Internet advertising against the tax. “That’s not the everyday, ordinary citizen who says, ‘I need a place to go walk; I need a place to play basketball, commune with nature’ ” — although of course the institute also manages Audubon Park, which is open to the public.

Improvements at the zoo to one side, Hardie and others also have questions about just how well Audubon has been managed. The new golf course that did eventually get built, for instance, loses money.

“If he’s bringing in all those people, and if all those people are paying all that money and he’s such a great businessman, why isn’t it more self-sufficient?” Hardie asked. And meanwhile, “people were saying, ‘Well, what about the Lafitte Greenway, what about City Park, what about this little pocket park in my neighborhood? Why aren’t these parks better funded?’ ”

Part of what angered critics about Audubon’s tax proposal was the relatively low profile the institute kept in the months before the vote, plus the decision to ask for the tax renewal several years before the existing zoo and aquarium millages expire.

Taken together, those decisions created the impression that Audubon wanted to grab a share of public dollars before a broader discussion got going about the city’s priorities.

The public libraries may need more money soon, City Park would like a dedicated tax, and Mayor Mitch Landrieu is pushing a bill at the Legislature that would give New Orleans the option of raising its millages for police and fire protection.

“There are going to be many different organizations that are going to be trying to convince voters that they deserve a millage,” said Thomas, who claims his newsletter on the subject got forwarded at least 20,000 times.

“This is a time in our city when we are restructuring,” he continued. “We are renewing New Orleans, and we’re making New Orleans a better place. And Ron Forman tried to jump the gun because he recognized that people were going to be lining up.”

There is, however, also an argument to be made that New Orleans can or should be able to have it both ways — to pay for open green space in City Park and neighborhood playgrounds as well as the world-class Audubon attractions that lure families and tourists.

Bob Becker, the CEO of City Park, makes this argument, even though — like Forman — he will eventually be looking for tax dollars himself. City Park gets a small portion of its funding from state taxes collected on slot machines at the Fair Grounds, but 85 percent of its roughly $15 million budget is self-generated, coming mainly from renting out portions of the park and charging for activities like tennis and golf.

Still, Becker, who formerly headed the City Planning Commission and later worked for Forman at Audubon for more than a decade, says the Audubon Institute is more of an asset to the city than people may realize.

“If you have a set of attractions like they do, that draw people into the city, that fill hotel rooms and put people in restaurants, that’s important,” Becker said. “What is the value of Woldenberg Park, for instance, where millions of people come through? I mean, it’s tremendous. Do they get credit for operating that space? I doubt it.”

It’s not exactly clear how Audubon would fare if it had to “live within its means,” as Forman’s detractors want.

In 2012 — the last year for which financial statements are available — Audubon operated at a small loss, even with about $8.6 million worth of property taxes coming in, although it’s not clear how much of the deficit was the result of paying off debt that might be retired before the existing taxes run out.

The website that Audubon set up to push for the new tax warned that “if the millage is not renewed, the zoo and aquarium will suffer a loss of $9 million annually beginning in 2015.” But spokesman Frank Donze acknowledged that claim was “unclear and poorly worded,” because the zoo and aquarium taxes won’t expire until 2022 and 2023.

In any case, other cities’ world-class attractions are often subsidized by public dollars as well. The famed San Diego Zoo has a dedicated property tax that amounts to about $10 million annually. Last year, the Wildlife and Conservation Society, which runs the Bronx Zoo and other attractions in New York, got nearly $15 million in operating funds from the city’s Department of Cultural Affairs.

Becker’s expectation — or hope — is that Audubon and eventually City Park, too, will do a better job of selling themselves to voters. He doesn’t see last month’s rejection as a sign of general anti-tax sentiment or a rejection of how Forman has run Audubon.

“I would guess the proposition put forward by Audubon had some weaknesses, and those were exploited pretty heavily in the latter part of their campaign,” Becker said. “Whether 50 years was too long, or the lack of specificity about what they were going to use the money for, I don’t know. But there are lessons there for all of us to try and understand.”

Apr 14, 2014

Source: The Advocate

Filed under: Orleans Parish

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