The New Orleans City Council took a first step Thursday toward asking voters to shift some tax revenue from the Audubon Commission to other parks and recreation agencies in New Orleans.
In approving a procedural motion, the council began a process that should result in voters choosing how the 6.31 total mills now allocated to the Audubon Commission, the Department of Parks and Parkways and the New Orleans Recreation Development Commission will be divided in the future, and to extend those millages for 20 years.
The popular vote, which will occur in May, would also grant City Park property tax revenue for the first time in its history.
But rather than hitting voters with more taxes, the Audubon Commission has agreed to a sizable reduction in its millage so City Park and the other agencies can see a gain.
The proposal would unify into a single tax what have for decades been multiple taxes dedicated to parks and recreation in the city, as well as adding City Park to the beneficiaries. Voters would, for the first time, make a yes-or-no decision on only one parks package.
“This is not a tax increase,” said Councilman Jay Banks, who co-sponsored the motion at Mayor LaToya Cantrell’s request. “It will do what we need to do, without any additional burden.”
Cantrell has praised the potential redistribution and touted it as a model for her plan to ask the Legislature to rededicate some of the city's hotel tax revenue to city government instead of to tourism promotion agencies, local sports facilities and the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center.
The city's parks and recreation agencies, meanwhile, have been quietly hashing out the details of the reallocation ever since the Audubon Commission tried and failed four years ago to extend and increase its millage.
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.
Four years ago, Audubon sought to hike the 3.31 mills it now gets for the zoo and aquarium’s operations to 4.2 mills and extend the millage for 50 years, giving itself at least an additional $2 million a year. But voters rejected that idea.
Some objected to the relatively sparse funding for the upkeep of playgrounds and neutral grounds in their neighborhoods, said Sarah Olivier of the Trust for Public Land. The trust has since worked with the various agencies involved to come up with a new way to slice the pie.
Under the plan expected to go on the May 4 ballot, Audubon’s current 3.31 mills would be reduced to 1.95 mills, a loss of about $4.3 million annually to an agency that also relies heavily on admission fees and private fundraising. Audubon's total revenue last year amounted to $68 million.
Parks and Parkways, which oversees green spaces citywide, would see its present 1.5 mills bumped up to 1.85 mills. That would add $1.2 million a year to the $4.9 million it now gets in property taxes. The agency also got about $8.8 million this year from the city’s general fund.
Meanwhile, NORDC, which oversees playgrounds, would see its 1.5 mills raised to 1.95 mills, or about $1.5 million more than the $4.9 million in direct property taxes it now receives. NORDC separately got $13 million from the city’s general fund this year.
Finally, City Park would get .61 mills, or about $2 million a year. The park has, since its creation, been self-funded, save for up to $2.2 million it gets annually in slot machine proceeds from the Fair Grounds and about $400,000 it receives from sales tax revenue it generates.
The total millage under the new plan would be the same as now: 6.31 mills. The change would take effect on Jan., 1, 2021, when most existing millages for the agencies expire; the taxes would remain in effect through 2040.
At Parks and Parkways, the new money would be used to hire new personnel and equipment for grounds maintenance and forestry.
NORDC would be able to offer expanded programming, officials said.
At City Park, the cash would help bring 24/7 security to the park, repair roads and drainage, and increase the frequency of trash pickup and landscaping.
Five council members voted Thursday to publish a notice of their intention to vote Dec. 6 to place the millage reallocation and extension on the May 4 ballot, a procedural step required under state law. Kristin Gisleson Palmer abstained, and Jason Williams was absent.