In the 1980s, I attended a rally where Audubon zookeeper Ron Forman handed out “Go Fish” buttons and asked the public to vote for a millage to pay for bonds to build a tourism-boosting aquarium and park in our world-famous French Quarter. In 1986, the public voted yes.
Decades later, those aquarium bonds are almost paid off. Like a family that pays off its mortgage, we can soon have extra money in our pocket. Hooray!
But wait: On May 4, a Jazz Fest Saturday, the Audubon Nature Institute wants you to vote for another tax, the only thing on the ballot. Because the total millage amount won’t change from the 1986 aquarium tax, tax backers imply this is a renewal.
Who doesn’t want to help our parks and our kids, right? We love our parks. We love our kids. But we should love accountability and transparency, too.
Start with this: Regardless of whether it’s the same millage amount, if the aquarium bond tax is no longer needed, this is a new tax.
With this tax, Audubon will have free rein to deposit millions of unencumbered dollars into its general fund to pay for fish food, buildings, salaries (Forman makes at least $700,000 a year, according to IRS documents) — who knows what?
When I say “who knows what?,” it’s not rhetorical. Proponents have colorful PowerPoint presentations, brochures and signs. But no New Orleans Parks Master Plan. No budget for the tax money.
Audubon assures us such things can be created after the public approves the money. The motto seems to be, “Trust me. I’m from the quasi-government, and I’m here to help.”
Sharing a slice, although a very modest one, of the May 4 millage with City Park, New Orleans Recreation Department Commission and Parks and Parkways helps with Audubon’s public relations. That’s needed because in 2014 the public voted no by a 2-1 margin to Audubon’s last tax effort.
We have time to get this right. The 1986 aquarium tax doesn’t run out until 2021, the same year as the current NORDC and Parks & Parkways millage. Before approving a new decades-long tax, we need to slow down and insist on genuine transparency, planning, budgets and accountability.
A promise of afterward is not good enough.
If on May 4, voters vote no, we can develop a plan to address NORDC, Parks and Parkways and all our parks throughout the city, giving them a bigger share to boot. I predict you’ll finally see true citizen participation and planning.
I want to support our kids and parks. When I vote no May 4, I’ll be thinking “not yet.”