On the Ballot

New Orleans voters to decide on plan to spread Audubon’s wealth to other parks, recreation agencies

By Jessica Williams

Source: The Advocate

April 19, 2019

Five years ago, with his request for a tax hike decisively rejected by voters, Ron Forman stood in an Audubon Commission conference room and promised to someday make taxpayer funding of “world-class attractions” like the Audubon Zoo easier for voters to swallow.

A repackaged proposal was key to the long-term survival of the Audubon Nature Institute, Forman, its CEO, told his board.

The plan New Orleans voters will consider beginning Saturday is an attempt to fulfill that promise. But rather than seeking additional funds only for itself, Audubon is now asking taxpayers to approve a millage that would share the wealth with the city’s Department of Parks & Parkways, the New Orleans Recreation Development Commission and City Park.

The new plan would redivide the 6.31 mills that property owners already pay for parks and recreation and send them the same bill. Only this time, Audubon would take a much smaller share so the other groups can see a gain. Notably, City Park would gain property tax dollars for the first time in its 165-year history.

Early voting on that single issue begins Saturday and runs through April 27, excluding Sunday. The election is May 4.

The proposal that voters will consider bears little resemblance to the one they turned down five years ago.

At that time, Audubon was asking for 4.2 mills per year, over 50 years, to replace the 3.31 mills that it has been receiving for the zoo and the Aquarium of the Americas.

The proposal would have netted Audubon an extra $2 million per year. But Forman and other proponents repeatedly advertised it as a tax renewal, not an increase.

Many residents blasted that idea. Also criticized were Forman’s hefty annual salary, an opaque plan for spending the millage and the hundreds of thousands of dollars Audubon spent on its campaign to win passage of the tax.

In the end, voters shot down the measure by a 2-1 margin.

“Audubon learned a lot from that experience,” said Rebecca Dietz, a former city attorney under Mayor Mitch Landrieu who is now Audubon’s general counsel and vice president of public affairs. “Voters did not want an increase in the millage rate for a very long time without any explanation of what the money would be used for.”

So Audubon teamed up with the nonprofit Trust for Public Land, City Park, Parks and Parkways and NORDC to come up with a plan they all hoped voters would accept.

The new plan — a single measure to be voted up or down — will take the money property owners already pay and divvy it up in a way that benefits more agencies. The groups must clearly explain how they are spending that money and come up with a master plan for parks and recreation in New Orleans.

City Park would receive .61 mills, or an estimated $2 million a year. Chief Executive Bob Becker  hopes to hire new security guards, a force he said would have been of help when teacher Terrilynn Monette drove into Bayou St. John near the park in 2013 and officials searched for months for her body.

The money would also pay for an arborist and an annual replacement program for worn-out equipment, he said.

City Park currently gets about $1.9 million a year from a tax on slot machines authorized by the state Legislature. The rest of its $19.5 million operating budget comes from its operations and private donations.

Parks & Parkways Director Ann Macdonald said the extra .30 mills, or about $1 million, slated to go to her agency would be spent on 12 new employees to help maintain green spaces around New Orleans.

“Pre-Katrina, Parks and Parkways had 225 employees and 2,000 acres of public green space that we were responsible for,” Macdonald said. “We now have 153 employees and that same 2,000 acres of green space.”

She attributed the decline in workers to cuts in the agency’s budget over the years. It received $8.8 million from the city’s general fund last year, and close to $5 million from its millage.

NORDC chief Larry Barabino Jr. said a proposed extra .45 mills, totaling about $1.5 million, would help the recreation agency staff up its swimming pools and purchase a bucket truck to assist with maintenance.

Backers said the money also would help pay for more recreation leaders, five athletic site facilitators, 112 seasonal lifeguards and eight year-round lifeguards, among other uses.

NORDC now gets about $5 million a year from its existing 1.5-mill tax. It received $13 million last year from the city’s general fund.

Although Audubon would lose more than $4 million a year in tax money, Dietz said it will be able to absorb most of that blow when it finishes paying off the bonds that financed building of the aquarium in 2021.

The proposal before voters would let Audubon use its tax money to fund facilities other than its aquarium and zoo, such as its Nature Center in New Orleans East and its Wilderness Park in Lower Coast Algiers.

The new campaign has gained its biggest ally in Mayor LaToya Cantrell, who has called it a model for her broader push to fund city infrastructure needs with existing money.

“This is something that we are going to have to do, using the revenue we already have to make improvements … and do things you have not seen before,” she told a crowd of hundreds at Audubon’s annual Soul Fest last month.

Cantrell’s PAC, which has raised more than $137,000 in the past two months, has also swung its weight behind the millage plan. That’s on top of about $78,000 that Together for Parks, a group formed solely to support the plan, has raised in just the last month.

The nonpartisan Bureau of Governmental Research also has endorsed the plan, as have some residents who have been glad to hear that it won’t represent a hike in what they pay each year.

“It’s no new taxes,” said Ed Blouin, a New Orleans East resident, just before he pointed to overgrown shubbery on the neutral ground near Michoud Boulevard and Lourdes Street. He said those bushes might get trimmed more often if Parks & Parkways had more money.

Still, a group of volunteers is working to persuade people to shoot the idea down.

Debra Howell, a Carrollton resident and longtime Audubon critic who opposed Audubon’s tax proposal in 2014, said, “Most people feel like this is Audubon’s next idea: to hide behind well-liked organizations to get new money when their zoo and aquarium millages run out.”

She said Audubon should rely solely on private fundraising and admission fees to sustain itself.

“Where is this fair and equitable? Who came up with these numbers?” she said. “City Park is three times the size of Audubon Park, and they have a much lower revenue stream.”

Officials with the various agencies said the allocations were the result of months of negotiations, and that Cantrell pushed for adjustments in each agency’s haul to make sure everyone was getting a fair shake.

Dietz pointed out that Audubon manages multiple properties and must care for thousands of animals. Becker said City Park is glad to be getting any new property taxes.

Forman is noticeably less visible in the current campaign, with Dietz representing the institute in interviews and at public presentations.

She said the latest plan proves Audubon has taken account of public criticisms.

Five years ago, “Audubon was forced to look internally at how the community views it,” she said. “And this is an opportunity for Audubon to show the community that we are trying to be a resource, and not an amenity.”

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