In The News › Voters to steer NORD’s future Saturday

Sep 29, 2010

Source: The Times-Picayune

Filed under: Governance, On the Ballot, Orleans Parish

Voters to steer NORD’s future Saturday

Public-private panel has its fans, foes

Wednesday, September 29, 2010
By Bruce Eggler
The Times-Picayune

On one thing, both supporters and critics of a proposal to reorganize the management of New Orleans’ recreation programs are in agreement: The New Orleans Recreation Department, once nationally acclaimed, has fallen on hard times and is not providing adequate recreational opportunities for the city’s young people.

The two sides do not agree on whether the proposed City Charter amendment on Saturday’s ballot is the best way to solve the problem.

The amendment would abolish NORD as a City Hall department and replace it with a new semiautonomous agency, the New Orleans Recreation Development Commission. The 13-member public-private commission would be responsible for overseeing athletic and cultural programs for young people, seniors and others. It would hire an executive director to run the programs.

The amendment also would allow — though not require — the new agency to assume responsibility for maintaining the city’s playgrounds and recreational facilities. The Parks and Parkways Department now is responsible for maintaining them, resulting in divided authority.

The charter amendment, however, does not address what many consider the hub of NORD’s problems: the inadequate budgets that are largely responsible for closed pools, dilapidated playgrounds, equipment shortages, underpaid coaches and sharp disparities in the quality of programs and facilities between playgrounds in poor neighborhoods and those in richer neighborhoods where parents form booster clubs to supplement city money.

City Council President Arnie Fielkow, one of the chief proponents of the charter amendment, originally proposed a companion measure that would have financed the new commission’s activities by increasing an existing Recreation Department millage. He dropped that plan when new Mayor Mitch Landrieu refused to support it, though Landrieu has endorsed the charter amendment.

Landrieu has promised to increase NORD’s appropriation in the 2011 budget he presents to the council. Fielkow hopes the current $5 million budget will be nearly doubled, though the city’s severe financial problems mean that is uncertain.

Some City Council members recognized the problem when the council voted 6-0 in June to put the charter amendment before the voters.

“Just reorganizing NORD is not going to solve the problem,” Councilwoman Cynthia Hedge-Morrell said at the time. “I’m 100 percent behind this (amendment) as long as we adequately fund it,” she said. Otherwise, she said, the amendment is just “lip service.”

“The current structure could work if it is properly funded,” Councilman Jon Johnson said.

Pointing to Audubon model

Amendment proponents say creating the new administrative structure can help spur millions in private donations by giving business leaders and foundations confidence their money will be wisely used. Along with the new management commission, a new nonprofit foundation would be created to raise private money.

Some critics point to the proponents’ difficulty in raising even half of the $250,000 they wanted for a publicity campaign on behalf of the charter amendment. If the business community could not come up with that sum for a campaign to create the new structure, critics say, what reason is there to think it will be ready to contribute millions of dollars a year for programs?

Proponents, on the other hand, can point to one obvious, if usually unstated, model that has proved highly successful in raising private and public money, improving management and making a mostly independent appendage of New Orleans government a national trend setter in the way that NORD once was: the Audubon Commission and its allied fundraising and management arm, the Audubon Nature Institute.

Just as the commission and institute turned one of the nation’s worst zoos into one of the best and then built other front-rank attractions such as the Aquarium of the Americas and the pioneering insectarium, proponents hope the new recreation commission and foundation can turn around NORD’s fortunes.

Amendment supporters often point to the Baton Rouge Recreation and Park Commission, known as BREC, as a model for what they hope to see in New Orleans.

With nearly 200 park sites and facilities, BREC has one of the most highly acclaimed and active local park systems in the nation. It runs golf courses, tennis courts, a zoo, a theater, swimming pools, an art gallery, equestrian centers, dog parks, a 22-field soccer complex, historic plantations, a water park, botanical gardens, an astronomy observatory, bike trails, football fields, archery and gun ranges, and many neighborhood playgrounds.

BREC’s annual budget of about $45 million is nine times NORD’s 2010 budget. But about 75 percent of BREC’s money comes from a 14.5-mill property tax in East Baton Rouge Parish. The rest of the money comes from fees. In addition, a foundation conducts private fundraising for special projects. By contrast, NORD receives about 1 mill in dedicated property tax, plus an appropriation from the city’s general fund.

Early acclaim, then decline

NORD was created in 1946, at least in part as a way to curb juvenile delinquency in the city, and quickly became one of the showpieces of new Mayor deLesseps “Chep” Morrison’s administration, winning national acclaim.

“No U.S. city can match the strides New Orleans has made in the past few years in providing recreational facilities and attracting attendance,” Life magazine declared in an eight-page text-and-photos spread in 1949.

During his first term in office, Morrison oversaw construction on 91 playgrounds and 17 swimming pools, and the number of residents participating in NORD activities exploded.

The department thrived for many years, supported by a strong local economy and plentiful federal grants. But the oil bust of the mid-1980s and the drying up of federal dollars brought on hard times. Between 1985 and 1991, the cash-strapped city cut NORD’s budget from $6.2 million to $2.2 million. Translating those numbers into 2010 dollars, the nonpartisan Bureau of Governmental Research calculated, that amounted to a drop from $12.5 million to $3.5 million.

NORD has really never recovered, and its problems have been exacerbated by frequent changes in leadership: at least 12 different directors between 1978 and 2008. Changing the department’s management structure is no guarantee of either stable or capable leadership, of course, but once again proponents can point to the comparison with Audubon, which has had the same top man, Ron Forman, for more than 30 years.

Clash over ‘privatizing’

The charter amendment does not spell out the composition of the proposed new recreation commission, but the City Council recently passed an ordinance to do that.

The 13-member commission would include the mayor and two other high administration officials, a council member, leaders of the Recovery School District and the Orleans Parish School Board, the chairman of the City Planning Commission and five private citizens, one from each council district, with expertise in specified fields such as sports, business, law and the arts, or as “consumers” of recreation programs, such as a parent or booster club member. The 13th member would represent the fundraising foundation. The commission’s officers would have to come from the citizen members.

Debate on the ordinance, however, had little to do with the specifics of the commission’s makeup. Both sides instead argued the merits of the charter amendment, with some community activists and NORD coaches warning against what they called “privatizing” NORD. They said playgrounds could begin charging admission and participation fees that poor families would be unable to pay.

Proponents rejected the term “privatization” and said one of the chief goals of the new arrangement is to “level the playing field” citywide by making sure that all neighborhoods, whether wealthy or poverty-ridden, have quality parks and playgrounds. They said there is no danger of prohibitive fees.

Some speakers also expressed fear that NORD supervisors and other employees, no longer under civil service, will lose their jobs under the new arrangement. Fielkow said the larger budget anticipated as soon as next year means the new commission would be adding employees, not firing them, though there is no guarantee it would retain all current coaches.

Meanwhile, the New Orleans branch of the NAACP has come out against the charter change, warning that the new commission “would not be directly answerable to the public or any elected official” and could become as “problem plagued” as the Public Belt Railroad Commission. Proponents replied that the commission would be subject to open meetings laws, would include several public officials and would have to make annual financial accountings to the city.

Sep 29, 2010

Source: The Times-Picayune

Filed under: Governance, On the Ballot, Orleans Parish

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