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A Japanese magnolia tree is in full bloom as John Page, a Tulane University business professor, makes his daily commute down Exposition Boulevard in Audubon Park in February 2019. If the millage passes, Audubon will share its take with other city park agencies.

New Orleans voters on Saturday roundly endorsed a new financial plan for parks and recreation in the city that will boost services but not taxes.

The overwhelming approval — about 76 percent — means the property taxes that benefit city green spaces and recreation programs will be renewed at the same level for two decades beginning in 2021, but will be redivided so that more agencies will benefit.

The Audubon Commission, which runs the Aquarium of the Americas, the Audubon Zoo and other facilities, will share much of the revenue it has been receiving with the New Orleans Recreation Development Commission, the city's Department of Parks & Parkways, and New Orleans City Park.

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Property owners will get the same total tax bill. Audubon will take a loss so the other groups can see a gain, although its millage will be extended for another two decades. And City Park will get property tax money for the first time in its 165-year history.

"It's a huge step forward for all of the agencies," City Park CEO Bob Becker said.

Saturday's endorsement came five years after voters struck down a separate pitch by Audubon to increase its own millage rate for 50 years, even after it paid off the bonds that paid to build the aquarium, but not share the wealth with other agencies.

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Critics said Audubon also rakes in money from private donors and from admission charges for its facilities. Audubon was also taken to task for calling its plan a tax renewal, even though homeowners would have paid more taxes had it been approved.

Since then, Audubon linked up with the other groups and the nonprofit Trust for Public Land to come up with a 20-year millage people would support.

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Their plan — to split roughly $22 million a year four ways — found its biggest champion in Mayor LaToya Cantrell, whose endorsement likely won over some voters.

"This is what good governance looks like," Cantrell said in a statement last week.

With the mayor’s support came thousands of dollars in ads, direct mailing and other help from her political action committee, according to campaign finance reports filed with the state. A separate group, Together for Parks Alliance, raised $78,000 in March alone to support the plan.

Also backing the measure were the Bureau of Governmental Research, the City Council and a slew of other elected officials and advocates. 

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The deal had its critics, but they had few resources. And their opposition  hinged on Audubon's involvement in the arrangement.

"In many people’s eyes, Audubon has become more of a tourism agency than a parks agency ... so why can't they get more money from the tourism industry?" said Carrollton resident and longtime Audubon critic Debra Howell.  

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Under the new tax split, Audubon will take in $6.4 million annually in property taxes beginning in 2021, about $4.5 million less a year than it does now.

Officials said Audubon can absorb the loss because the bond debt on the aquarium will soon roll off. Audubon will also be able to spend its money for the first time on its Louisiana Nature Center and other facilities, not only on the aquarium and zoo.

Meanwhile, City Park will gain an estimated $2 million a year, money Becker will use to hire new security guards and an arborist and to replace worn-out tools.

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Parks & Parkways will get an extra $1 million for 12 new employees to help maintain green spaces around New Orleans.

And NORDC will get an extra $1.5 million to staff its swimming pools and playgrounds.

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The agencies also must come up with a master plan for parks and recreation in New Orleans and report back to Cantrell and the City Council how they are spending their newfound money.


Follow Jessica Williams on Twitter, @jwilliamsNOLA​.