Audubon’s tax strategy this time around: Share the money with other park and recreation agencies

By Jessica Williams

Source: The Advocate

October 5, 2018

Four years after New Orleans voters overwhelmingly rejected a 4.2-mill property tax for the Audubon Nature Institute that would have lasted a whopping 50 years, Audubon President and CEO Ron Forman is trying to craft a more palatable proposal that would funnel taxpayer dollars to several agencies responsible for parks and recreation in New Orleans.

The ballot issue being discussed would provide brand new tax revenue for City Park, the New Orleans Recreation Development Commission, the city’s Department of Parks and Parkways, and the Trust for Public Land, the group behind the Lafitte Greenway.

It also would keep tax dollars flowing to the Audubon Nature Institute, a nonprofit which operates the Audubon Zoo, Audubon Aquarium of the Americas, Audubon Park and several other nature-based attractions for the Audubon Commission, a city agency.

An Audubon spokeswoman would not discuss how much money the agencies might seek or when they hope to put the issue before voters, but she said details will be released soon.

“We are in the process of creating a robust engagement plan to inform the community about the partnership … and will have more information in the weeks ahead,” Lauren Messina Conrad said.

Mayor LaToya Cantrell commended Forman this week for broadening the scope of the tax proposal, saying the new approach could play better with voters than Audubon’s proposal in 2014 to increase its tax haul to at least $12 million a year.

“A lot of people felt like, ‘Money is going to Audubon, and we don’t know how they are benefiting or not,’ ” Cantrell said at a luncheon Thursday at City Park. “This time around, I really have to tip my hat to Mr. Forman, because he is rethinking and being creative as the taxes come up for renewal.”

Audubon is one of several semi-private entities that receive local taxpayer money. The failed tax proposal would have replaced two current millages for the zoo and the Aquarium of the Americas that voters approved in 1972 and 1986.

Audubon currently collects 3.31 mills in property taxes, an amount that produced $9.8 million in 2015, according to the Bureau of Governmental Research. Audubon tried to persuade voters to hike that amount to 4.2 mills, which would have generated at least $12 million annually, for 50 years.

The 4.2 mills were actually less than the 4.55 mills Audubon assessed before it voluntarily rolled back its millage in 2007, after property valuations across the city rose and Audubon and other agencies collected more money in general.

Still, the referendum failed, at least in part because Audubon was seeking the tax renewal for 50 years and asked for it to appear on the ballot years before the taxes would actually expire, and ahead of other agencies that would also soon be in line for renewals.

Audubon’s two millages are due to expire in 2021 and 2022, respectively.

Including other agencies among the beneficiaries this time around could go over better with voters, Cantrell said.

Some of the agencies receive some taxpayer money already.

Parks and Parkways, which is responsible for landscaping on neutral grounds and public spaces like the Joseph Bartholomew Municipal Golf Course in Pontchartrain Park, received $8.8 million from the city’s general fund this year. NORDC, which operates the city’s playgrounds and recreation programs, got $13 million.

City Park gets no city money but gets about 15 percent of its annual budget from taxes on slot machines at the Fair Grounds. In 2015, that was $2.1 million.

The mayor also touted Forman’s decision to try to spread the wealth as a model for her nascent effort to convince the Legislature to dedicate more of the city’s hotel tax revenue to city government instead of tourism promotion agencies and those administering local sports facilities and the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center.

The proposed redistribution could set the stage for an ugly fight with the agencies that now benefit from the hotel tax, however. Industry representatives convinced the Legislature four years ago to kill a similar push by Mayor Mitch Landrieu to use hotel tax money to pay for police reforms and firefighters’ pension debt.

“We want to use this example of Audubon doing things differently,” Cantrell said. “Because we have to, if we care about the future of the city of New Orleans.”

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