The sole item on the May 4 ballot in New Orleans is a citywide referendum often referred to as “Parks and Rec.” The ballot proposition could just as easily be cast as a vote on the future of New Orleans’ quality of life, particularly for those who enjoy the city’s outdoor spaces.
If approved by voters, the Citywide Parks and Recreation Initiative would renew an existing 6.31 mills of property taxes for 20 years, starting January 2021, and redistribute the annual revenue among four public agencies that oversee thousands of acres of green space, dozens of recreational and cultural facilities, and scores of programs and attractions valued by locals and visitors alike.
Those agencies are:
• The New Orleans Recreation Development Commission (NORDC),
• The New Orleans Department of Parks & Parkways,
• New Orleans City Park, and
• The Audubon Commission.
So far, the campaign to renew the millage appears to be an easy sell. No organized opposition has surfaced. Mayor LaToya Cantrell, all seven City Council members, the Bureau of Governmental Research (BGR), the local Democratic and Republican parties and a host of neighborhood, civic and political groups have lined up in support.
A nonpartisan research group is urging New Orleans and Jefferson Parish voters to support two tax measures that will be on the May 4 ballot.
NORDC, Parks & Parkways and Audubon have existing millages that expire by the end of 2021. The timing is right for them to “share” in a millage renewal, supporters say, especially since it would redistribute the proceeds more equitably among the agencies responsible for local parks and recreational programs and facilities. The Parks and Rec millage also would broaden the permitted uses of tax revenues to include programs, public safety and storm water management in public spaces.
Equally important, the proposal would give City Park a share of local public support for the first time ever, as much of its funding comes from the state and usage fees. City Park, while treasured by locals, has struggled for decades to manage and improve its more than 1,300 acres of public space and facilities. If voters approve the proposition May 4 — which is the second Saturday of Jazz Fest — City Park will get more than $2 million a year in local property tax proceeds. (See accompanying chart.)
NORDC and Audubon each would get about $6.7 million a year — a decrease of almost $4.5 million for Audubon, but a $1.5 million boost for NORDC — while Parks & Parkways would receive roughly $5.5 million a year (approximately $1 million more than it currently receives).
In addition to redistributing more than 40 percent of Audubon’s current tax receipts, the proposition would require the four agencies to sign and implement cooperative endeavor agreements authorizing them to share facilities, equipment and other resources — and provide greater accountability, according to supporters of the initiative.
New Orleans City Park is the largest swath of continuous green space in the city, complete with an amusement park, botanical garden, tennis ce…
“By working together with park partners in the spirit of collaboration, coordination, cooperation and compromise, we’ve agreed on a fair and equitable reallocation of our parks and recreation resources without raising new taxes,” Cantrell said in a statement of support. “It’s a blueprint for how we can work together. It means better infrastructure, more safety and increased recreation programming for everyone.”
BGR, which joined Cantrell in opposing a proposed new millage for senior citizen services on the March 30 ballot (a measure which failed), said the proposition “gives voters a chance to rebalance the tax revenue [and] put into effect an agreement among the park agencies and the city intended to foster greater planning, coordination and public accountability.”
All four agencies have “Friends” organizations and various volunteer groups that form the backbone of their programs — and could be a potent political force if harnessed. But, says pollster and political consultant Greg Rigamer, who has been hired by the local coalition promoting Parks and Rec, voter support for the referendum transcends the groups’ individual and collective networks.
“Our recent polling shows that support for the Parks and Rec initiative is perfectly balanced demographically and geographically across the city,” Rigamer told Gambit. “It enjoys solid support across racial and economic lines, and in all City Council districts.”
Rigamer adds that voters are responding “very favorably” to the major selling points touted by Parks and Rec supporters. First and foremost, it’s not a new tax or a tax increase; it would merely renew an existing property tax. Equally if not more important to many voters — particularly those who led the fight to defeat a proposed extension of Audubon’s millage three years ago — is the redistribution of Audubon’s share of the tax revenues to the other park agencies.
That is especially true for City Park. “The inclusion of NORD, Parks & Parkways and particularly City Park touches the vast majority of the city’s residents,” Rigamer says. “With the enhanced funding for NORD, City Park and Parks & Parkways, you’re benefiting a lot of seniors and youth all over town.”
The absence of organized opposition and the apparent phalanx of political and civic support make the proposition look like a sure thing — which is what scares Rigamer.
“The thing we don’t want is for supporters to become complacent and not go out and vote on May 4,” he says, adding, “Tax propositions tend to poll better than they perform. If you don’t poll above 60 percent, which this proposition does, you could be in trouble. Still, we need supporters to remember to either vote early or show up on Election Day.”
Here’s an overview of what each Parks and Rec agency does now and how it will use the new revenue if voters say “yes” on May 4:
NORDC — CEO Larry Barabino Jr. says the city’s recreation department manages more than 100 active and “passive” playgrounds, plus 13 multipurpose facilities, 19 swimming pools (four of them indoor pools), five stadiums and two tennis facilities. “We also have dozens of recreational, cultural and summer programs for people of all ages,” Barabino says.
Additional funding would allow for more programs for youth and seniors, more partnerships with schools, rebuilding and maintaining existing facilities, and building new facilities. Like the other agency leaders, Barabino measures NORDC’s future potential against what was in place before Hurricane Katrina and the levee failures decimated city facilities and finances.
“Before Katrina, we had 264 employees," he says. "Today we have 240. If the millage passes, we will hire an additional 112 employees for our expanded summer programs, and we’ll be able to better maintain and provide greater security at all our facilities by providing better lighting.”
Parks & Parkways — Commission Director Ann Macdonald laments that the city agency in charge of some 2,000 acres of New Orleans’ green space operates at a deficit. The agency’s purview includes St. Charles Avenue’s iconic oak trees (and roughly 500,000 city trees along public rights of way), the recently renovated Joseph M. Bartholomew Golf Course in Pontchartrain Park, Louis Armstrong Park, and Brechtel Park in Algiers.
“Before Katrina, we had 225 employees and 2,000 acres of public green space,” Macdonald says. “We now have 151 employees. We contract out much of our work and we’ve put in some efficiencies by cross-training our ground crews. We’re doing the city’s first tree inventory in 30 years — many are new, but many are also in decline.”
If the proposition passes, Macdonald says her agency will hire two new grounds maintenance crews and one additional forestry crew as well as equipment for each. “There’s no fluff in what we’re going to do,” she says. “It’s all about basic operations. We will continue to beautify public green spaces, neutral grounds and corridors.”
One critical task that Parks & Parkways crews handle is post-storm cleanup. “When there’s a tropical event, our folks and NORD folks are among the first on the street to be boots on the ground to clear the streets,” Macdonald says. “FEMA may never show up — it may just get done by us. We clear the streets to police stations, firehouses and hospitals as soon as we can.”
New Orleans City Park — Park Director Bob Becker acknowledges that City Park is a hybrid among local public agencies in that it is overseen by a state board yet the grounds are owned by the city. In recent years, the state began funding part of the park’s operations. Renewal of the millage would give the park a share of city tax dollars for the first time.
“Most of our infrastructure was built by the [Works Progress Administration] and is worn out,” Becker says. “We have replaced much of it, but much still needs to be replaced or restored — and right now we lack funding to invest any more in the infrastructure.”
The park’s 1,300-acre footprint includes two golf courses, an urban forest, two equine stables (one for cops), the Sydney and Walda Besthoff Sculpture Garden, several festival grounds, the Storyland children’s attraction, the Botanical Gardens, Tad Gormley Stadium, numerous soccer and lacrosse fields, City Bark dog park, a tennis center, putt-putt golf course, Popp Fountain, Scout Island — and scores of programs for all ages, including the nation’s oldest freshwater fishing rodeo.
Becker says half of the $2 million City Park would get if the renewal passes will go to infrastructure. The rest would help improve park security to provide 24/7 coverage (which the park can’t do now) as well as buy new equipment to better manage the park’s extensive forested areas.
Audubon Commission — Audubon operates five public park facilities (Audubon Park, The Fly, Woldenberg Park, the Louisiana Nature Center and the Wilderness Park in Algiers). It maintains more than 340 acres of public park space and more than 1,100 acres of forest, along with the Aquarium of the Americas and the Audubon Butterfly Garden and Insectarium.
In the past, Audubon’s two millages (totaling 3.31 mills) were dedicated to the Aquarium and Audubon Zoo infrastructure. If renewed, they will be shared with the other agencies and used for all Audubon facilities and programs.
“The renewed millage will be split between programming and maintenance, plus security, capital improvements, equipment replacement, storm water management, animal habitat and conservation exhibits,” says Rebecca Dietz, Audubon’s executive vice president for public affairs. “We’ll get less money, but we’ll gain more flexibility as to how it is spent, and we’re proud to be joining with other park operators to reallocate these tax dollars among all public park agencies.”
Early voting is Saturday, April 20, through Saturday, April 27, with no voting on Easter Sunday, April 21.