Tax for New Orleans parks and rec backed by watchdog group
By Beau Evans
Source: NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune
April 9, 2019
The Bureau of Governmental Research gave its blessing Tuesday (April 9) for a ballot proposal in New Orleans aimed at maintaining the current amount of property taxes charged for local parks and recreation services and a new split of those proceeds among four different groups. The proposal will be put to a vote in the May 4 election.
The proposition calls for levying 6.31 mills in property taxes and distributing revenues among the Audubon Nature Institute, City Park, the New Orleans Recreation and Development Commission and the city’s Department of Parks and Parkways. Existing taxes earmarked for three of those entities already round out to 6.31 mills, or about $20.8 million estimated for next year and are set to expire either in 2021 or 2022. City Park has never received a dedicated local property tax.
In a report released Tuesday, the watchdog nonprofit BGR said the tax proposal beats out alternatives such as shifting funds from other city government areas to cover parks and recreation needs or raising the admission price for certain City Park and Audubon attractions. BGR’s report also agreed with other past independent assessments that found funding for these four groups is already tight, and that scrapping the taxes outright could lead to major cuts that could pose steep operational problems.
“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,” the report says.
With the tax rate unchanged, the report found the average homeowner would continue paying a roughly $179 annual levy for parks and recreation purposes. If approved, the measure would come paired with an agreement among the four groups to share maintenance and programming tasks for New Orleans’ public parks; release a yearly summary of how revenues from those taxes are spent; hold occasional community meetings with representatives from all four groups; and work with city officials to draw up a 10-year citywide master plan for New Orleans parks, open spaces and recreation.
Audubon would see its tax revenues decrease about $4.4 million from the $10.8 million it currently receives, according to BGR. The new $6.4 million share, BGR notes, would be freed up for any purpose Audubon chooses. With the current tax, Audubon can only use tax revenues for the zoo and aquarium. BGR said Audubon would pump the less-restricted revenues into educational programs, facility maintenance and construction projects including drainage improvements.
City Park would get about $2 million in annual revenue from the new tax, BGR says, marking the first local tax dedication in the agency’s history. Half of those funds would go toward beefing up its staff and routine maintenance and the other half would be spent on infrastructure projects, according to BGR.
On the city side, NORDC and Parks and Parkways would see their budgets boosted by about $1.6 million and $1 million, respectively, if the tax measure passes. BGR said both agencies would bolster staff and maintenance with the additional funds. For NORDC, that would include buying a new bucket truck to fix stadium lights. Parks and Parkways would look to reduce a backlog of around 1,100 unfinished work orders related to tree trimming and removal, BGR said.
In recommending the tax measure, BGR’s report cautions it could be relatively easy for any of the four groups to pull out of the service-sharing agreement without jeopardizing their individual tax dedications. The report also highlighted that funding and cost amounts have not been settled yet for the 10-year master plan.
BGR’s support for the measure appears to bolster Mayor LaToya Cantrell’s push in recent months for the tax as part of her “fair share” initiative. The mayor held a series of community forums earlier this year to rally support for the measure.
In a statement Tuesday, Cantrell said the tax would boost park and recreational access and opportunities for residents “without any additional expense.”
“The new BGR report is independent confirmation of what we’ve been saying all along: The (parks tax) is good governance in action,” the mayor said.
The report released Tuesday also follows a separate report BGR released in March that opposed a different tax measure aimed at levying a new 2-mill tax for elderly services. That measure, also opposed by Cantrell, failed by a wide margin in a March 30 election. BGR and the mayor both criticized the elderly tax proposal as too lean on ensuring revenues would be spent properly.
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