Four years after New Orleans voters soundly rejected a long-term extension of a property tax for the Audubon Commission, park and city officials on Tuesday provided details of a plan to extend the tax while broadening the base of recipients — including, for the first time, City Park — and giving Audubon a much smaller share of the pie.
The biggest change is that the plan would unify into one tax initiative three separate taxes devoted to parks and recreation, meaning that voters will have to give an up-or-down vote to the whole package.
The 6.31-mill tax — the same amount now levied by the three taxes — would support the Audubon Commission, the Department of Parks and Parkways, the New Orleans Recreation Development Commission and City Park for 20 years.
The nonprofit Audubon Nature Institute operates Audubon Park, the Audubon Zoo, the Audubon Aquarium of the Americas and several other nature-related parks and facilities for the Audubon Commission, a city agency.
Under the proposed split, Audubon and NORDC — the latter of which oversees dozens of city playgrounds — would get equal shares of the 6.31-mill tax, bringing each one roughly $6.4 million a year, at current property valuations.
That's about $1.5 million more a year than NORDC now receives but about $4.5 million less a year than Audubon gets at present.
Parks and Parkways, which also oversees green spaces, would get about $6.1 million, or $1.2 million more than it gets now.
City Park, which now gets no property tax money, would get about $2 million a year.
New Orleans property owners would pay the same tax rates they are currently paying.
The City Council must vote to put the plan on the ballot.
Officials hope to ask voters to back the plan in May 2019, a year or more before the current millages for Audubon, NORDC and Parks and Parkways are set to expire.
“Audubon sees this as a great opportunity for these organizations to work together to meet the needs of the community with respect to parks and recreation,” said Rebecca Dietz, Audubon’s general counsel and senior vice president of public affairs. “This is a win-win for all of the agencies, as well as the public.”
The agencies detailed their plans on Tuesday, about a week after Mayor LaToya Cantrell first mentioned the proposal during an event at City Park and commended Audubon President and CEO Ron Forman for being willing to share the Nature Institute’s wealth.
The proposal is the result of months of sessions in which officials studied voters’ reasons for rejecting Audubon’s 2014 attempt to reap an additional $2 million annually over 50 years to cover the zoo and aquarium’s operations. That plan would have raised the combined 3.31 mills Audubon now gets for those two facilities to 4.2 mills.
“Voters said very clearly that some of the concerns behind the (lack of) support of Audubon were, ‘City Park doesn’t get any money' and 'My NORDC park isn’t funded,’ ” said Sarah Olivier of the Trust for Public Land, a national nonprofit that helped create the Lafitte Greenway and put together the current proposal.
Instead of asking for more money this time around, Audubon would take a loss.
Under the new plan, Audubon would receive only 1.95 mills of the 3.31 mills it now gets. NORDC would also get 1.95 mills, while Parks and Parkways would get 1.85 mills and City Park would get .61 mills for the first time. That arrangement would stick for 20 years.
Right now, NORDC and Parks and Parkways get 1.5 mills apiece. Separately, NORDC and Parks and Parkways also receive money from the city’s general fund — about $13 million and $8.8 million this year, respectively.
City Park, meanwhile, must raise on its own the vast majority of the money used to operate the 1,300-acre park. It does receive some of the sales tax revenue it generates, usually about $400,000 a year. And it gets some proceeds from slot machines at the Fair Grounds.
This year, City Park got $1.8 million from that source, said park CEO Bob Becker, who has long said that his park needs more dedicated funding sources to stay afloat.
“There’s lots of areas that we simply can’t make an investment in because we don’t have the money,” Becker said. “Our infrastructure — sewerage, water, drainage, bridges — were all built … more than 80 years ago, and they all need constant upkeep and repair.”
The park could also use more security officers, better equipment and more money to replace and care for trees, he said.
A Cantrell spokesman said Tuesday that the tax proposal would help ensure residents “are more directly benefiting from the tax revenue generated by our city.”
“More money for NORDC and for Parks and Parkways means more support for their missions and the services they provide, and potentially more flexibility elsewhere in the budget,” added Beau Tidwell.
But the plan will mean a loss for Audubon. That agency hasn’t yet decided how it will make up the shortfall, though it could increase the number of public events for which it can charge admission, officials said Tuesday. They pointed to Audubon’s upcoming “Zoo Lights” event, reminiscent of City Park’s Celebration in the Oaks, as an example of that kind of programming.
The various park agencies have also discussed how they might pool their resources and save money, such as through the sharing equipment or personnel.
Audubon’s current property millages also restrict use of the revenue to the zoo and the aquarium. If the final package does not, Audubon could spend more of its money on the other parks and public spaces it maintains, officials said.
Those include Audubon Park and its riverside section known as "The Fly," the Audubon Louisiana Nature Center in New Orleans East, Woldenberg Riverfront Park and two soon-to-be-converted former commercial wharves in the French Quarter. Audubon also manages the Wilderness Park in Lower Coast Algiers.
“The rededication of the millage opens up the possibility of using taxpayer money for more wide-ranging uses throughout the community,” Dietz said.
Editors Note, 10/10/18: This story was changed to reflect the correct amount of mills and corresponding funding to be rededicated to agencies under the plan.