On the Ballot

New Orleans voters asked to carve up parks & rec tax pie

By Beau Evans

Source: NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune

May 2, 2019

A measure to replace and redistribute expiring taxes for New Orleans parks and recreation organizations will be put to voters Saturday (May 4). If approved, the proposed 20-year property tax would be split four waysamong two city agencies and two park operations.

Beneficiaries of the proposed tax are the Audubon Nature Institute, City Park, the New Orleans Recreation Development Commission and the city’s Department of Parks and Parkways.

Supporters, including Mayor LaToya Cantrell, have said the tax consolidation adds a needed layer of needed accountability to the privately run Audubon, which for decades has collected taxes exclusively for its zoo and aquarium. Opponents say even more transparency is needed before any public resources are devoted to private interests.

The measure would keep the combined 6.31 mills currently in place for Audubon, NORDC and Parks and Parkways, and add City Park into the revenue mix. The current tax dedications expire in 2021 and 2022. It would be the first time City Park would see local tax revenue.

Audubon would see its existing annual tax share cut nearly in half to $6.4 million, down from the $10.8 million it currently receives, according to estimates from a recent report from the Bureau of Governmental Research. NORDC and Parks and Parkways would see a bump by about $1.6 million and $1 million, respectively. City Park would gain about $2 million.

According to BGR, the 6.31 mills levied by the existing parks and recreation taxes round out to about $20.8 million estimated for next year. The average homeowner would continue paying roughly $179 a year.

In addition to Cantrell, the proposition has the support of New Orleans City Council members and a host of advocacy and neighborhood groups. BGR also backed the measure in its report, calling it preferable to alternatives such as shifting funds from other city government areas to cover parks and recreation needs once the existing taxes expire or raising the admission price for certain City Park and Audubon attractions.

“The proposition’s rededication of existing parks and recreation taxes to the four entities appears to be the most promising alternative to improve public financial support without increasing taxes,” BGR’s report says.

Opponents of the tax criticize the measure for its long 20-year lifespan and out of concern it was crafted too much behind closed doors. They also argue the tax gives too large a portion to Audubon compared with the other parks-oriented groups.

They also question whether the four groups and city officials will follow through with a citywide parks and recreation master plan they’ve agreed to produce as part of the tax initiative.

“It’s an inequitable distribution of public revenue,” Debra Howell, a Carrollton resident who’s long been critical of Audubon, said Monday. “Had this all been planned in public, I think we’d be seeing a completely different millage proposition.”

Regardless of how it shakes out, observers expect low turnout for Saturday’s election. Ed Chervenak, director of the University of New Orleans’ Survey Research Center, said he anticipates between 8% and 10% of voters will hit the polls, up slightly from the 6.7% turnout seen for the March 30 election that offered up a failed 2-mill tax for senior-citizen services. Chervenak expects Saturday’s election results will be bolstered by more early-voting ballots handed in than there were for the senior services tax.

Chervenak also noted the parks tax differs from the senior-services millage in its support from numerous groups and city officials. Aside from Cantrell, chief among the parks tax’s backers include the political action committee Together for Parks Alliance, which records show had raised nearly $300,000 as of April 2 to push for the measure’s approval.

By comparison, the tax’s opponents have comprised volunteer efforts from residents who have not been raising money for any campaign, Howell said.

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