With Clear Expectations, We SAY Vote “yes” on the City-wide Parks & Recreation Proposal

A NEW ORLEANS TRIBUNE EDITORIAL

Approximate 2019 value of 1 mil is $3,447,784.

Here at The New Orleans Tribune, we do not often encourage our readers to vote in favor of new taxes or tax renewals, particularly depending on how they are to be used and who will be using them. 

With rising property values, higher costs of living and stagnate wages in the new New Orleans, we understand just how stretched many New Orleanians are in their efforts to make ends meet. As such, we greet any request for millage renewals, tax hikes or new tax assessments from entities that do not have a history of serving all New Orleanians in an equitable manner, with a well-earned dose of skepticism. As an honest and unfettered voice speaking for, to and about our community, this is a role The New Orleans Tribune assumes proudly and without apology.

With that said and with clear expectations, we believe our citizens should vote “yes” on the city-wide parks & recreation proposal on May 4, with early voting April 20-27. It is not a decision we make hastily or came to lightly. We have considered this proposal thoroughly. We have picked it a part. We’ve considered reasons why the people of the city should vote “no”. 

And while there are elements about which we had some reservations, we will put aside those reservations with the belief that they are outweighed by the ultimate benefits to the people of New Orleans.

We are enthusiastically joining Mayor LaToya Cantrell’s “fair share” mantra. And we are impressed to see each of these entities designated to divide the parks millage work together in ways that benefit the larger community. 

However, in making this endorsement, we are compelled to fully delineate our concerns about the millage as well as our expectations should it pass. 

BREAKING IT DOWN

The 6.31 mils city-wide parks proposal is being billed as a tax renewal and not a new tax. 

Upon further scrutiny, we must point out that a little less than half of it is, in fact, a tax renewal. The proposal takes the 3.0 mils that the city collects to fund the New Orleans Recreation Department Commission and Parks & Parkways (1.5 mils for each entity) and combines it with the 3.31 mils currently collected for the Audubon Nature Institute. The total 6.31 mils assessment is a little more than $21.7 million based on the current value of one mil at a bit more than $3.4 million. If the proposal passes, the $21.7 million will be shared by Audubon, NORDC, Park & Parkways and City Park—with NORDC and Park & Parkways collecting an additional .45 and .30 mils respectively to add to the revenue currently generated by the 1.5 mils they each now receive.  

City Park, which currently does not get any funding from the city, would take in .61 mils or a little more than $2.1 million from this combined parks millage. And instead of collecting the full $11.4 million that its current 3.31 mil rate generates, Audubon Nature Institute would reduce its share to 1.95 mils or roughly $6.7 million, which is the same amount NORDC would receive. Park & Parkways’ share comes to roughly $6.1 million.

Here’s why we say less than half of it is actually a “renewal”: Voters shunned the renewal of Audubon’s 3.31 mils five years ago. 

And to us, that fact makes those 3.31 mils of the 6.31 mils city-wide parks proposal less of a request for renewal and more of a second bite at the apple. We’re not knocking the effort. We are just calling a thing a thing. When voters soundly rejected the 3.31 millage renewal five years ago, they effectively got rid of the tax and did not expect to be assessed those 3.31 mils after 2021. 

The Tribune was one of the most vocal opponents of the Audubon Nature Institute’s 2014 request to voters to renew the 3.31 mils. 

Back then we had no reservations about asking the folk at Audubon one simple question as they came to the voters of Orleans Parish for a tax renewal: What have you done for “us” lately?

The answer was not nearly enough to warrant continuing the 3.31 mil assessment, which was originally approved in 1986 and primarily dedicated to the Aquarium of the Americas, which is today and was in 2014 a well-appointed attraction where admission for a family of four hovers somewhere around $120. As such, we concluded that the Audubon Nature Institute, through its ticket sales, memberships, venue rentals, concessions and gift shop sales, made enough money to sustain itself without continuing to collect 3.31 mils from the people of New Orleans, especially considering that even back then the cost of attending any of the Audubon attractions was out of reach of many struggling families across the city. Moreover, we were admittedly troubled by the large salary collected by its CEO and even suggested that Audubon look at tightening its belt instead of asking residents to continue to pay. Nor were we impressed with the organization’s efforts to do business with minority owned businesses. And we noted that Audubon only did minimal advertising to reach out to Black audiences through Black-owned media, with the exception of during those periods preceding millage elections.

It seems the people of the city agreed as indicated by their vote against the renewal.

We rehash the concerns that led us to editorialize against the millage renewal in 2014 for full disclosure and because, quite frankly, we see this new proposal for what it is. While being billed as a exceptional example of a cooperative effort between the four park entities to share in revenue currently generated by property taxes for parks and recreation in New Orleans; to us, it is an effort by the Audubon Nature Institute to at least salvage some of the 3.31 mils voters denied it five years ago. Oh, and it is a chance for City Park to get a slice of the pie.

THERE IS AN UPSIDE

Quite frankly, the upside, for us, is that it will provide some revenue increases for NORDC and Park & Parkways. And that is the primary reason we stand in support of it. The work of these two agencies widely impacts all New Orleanians. And the directors of these two city departments have laid out practical plans for how they will use the additional funds their departments will get should the measure pass.

Ann McDonald, director of Park & Parkways says her office will use the additional funds to support the hiring of three more staff members—two grounds crew worker and one forestry crew worker—in addition to purchasing the equipment needed for those workers to maintain green spaces, neutral grounds and corridors across the city.

NORDC Director Larry Barabino Jr. says the additional funding will assist the city’s recreation department by improving facility maintenance adding new programs NORDC offers to young people, adults and senior citizens throughout New Orleans and will also give the department the revenue needed to begin to replace outdated playground equipment and other structures at NORDC parks.

If this proposal were to fail, the people of New Orleans would eventually have to go to the polls to renew the total 3.0 mils the city collects for NORDC and Park & Parkways. And we have no doubt that they would renew it. What is less likely to happen is a millage increase resulting in additional revenue for either NORDC or Park & Parkways. Yes, Audubon is slipping in a tax renewal that the voters already said no to. But this time, they won’t be getting all of the money. And this way Parks & Parkways and NORDC get revenue boosts.

It is apparent that the much-ballyhooed quasi-privatization of NORD through the creation of a commission that was supposed to yield an increased ability to generate private donations to help fund the city’s recreation department has failed. In other words, both NORDC and Park & Parkways, as well, could use the additional dollars.

By the way, in light of the NORD Commission’s inability to live up to its hype, we also think its time to revisit this configuration. If the people of New Orleans remain the primary funders of the city’s recreation department, then the people elected by taxpayers are the only governing body this agency needs.

FAIR SHARE & EXPECTATIONS

We are buoyed by Audubon Nature Institute’s willingness to take a smaller portion of the millage than it has received in the past. This spirit of cooperation is welcomed.

However, as far as we are concerned, this could have been a three-way partnership between Audubon and the two city agencies, NORDC, Park & Parkways, and Audubon splitting the 6.31 mils evenly.

And speaking of things not lost on us, we have noted that Park & Parkways and NORDC are getting smaller portions of the revenue that Audubon is giving up, while City Park is getting the largest share of the 1.36 mils that Audubon is willing to forego. Had anyone asked us first, we would have suggested that at the very least revenue generated by 1.36 mils be split evenly between the two city departments and City Park.

We will be completely candid, we can’t think of much that those who manage City Park have done to warrant $2 million in local tax dollars. Admissions to the park’s venues are pricey. Little to no marketing is directed to Black residents. 

However, since City Park has been included and the pie has already been divided, we have some expectations for this millage proposal should it pass.

First, while the two city agencies—NORDC and Park & Parkways—already meet the city’s DBE participation guidelines of 35 percent with regard to contracted services and purchases, neither Audubon Nature Institute nor City Park fall under those rules. Still, only about 17 percent of Audubon’s contracts for goods and services were awarded to disadvantaged enterprises, according to Rebecca Deitz, Audubon’s general counsel and senior VP for public affairs. The number is not so impressive in a city that is still almost 60 percent African American. Yet, it is much better than the zero DBE participation rate of City Park, which has only been required by legislation to take part in a small business participation program as a state agency, but not meet DBE requirements or goals.

We understand that a cooperative endeavor agreement between Audubon, NORDC, Park & Parkways and City Park would help increase collaborative planning and programs, require an annual report to the Mayor and City Council on how funds were used and include some DBE regulations. 

This inter-agency agreement is another reason we can anticipate the good that can come from this proposal.

Additionally, we have watched with cautious optimism the efforts of the Audubon Nature Institute to make its venues more accessible to more New Orleanians. Programs like Orleans Parish Appreciation Days, offering free admissions to residents every Wednesday, and the Audubon SNAP Program, which offers free admission to Audubon attractions to Orleans Parish residents that receive SNAP benefits are steps in the right direction. New Orleans Public Library cardholders can even check out Audubon passes from the library to use for admission to Audubon Nature Institute facilities.

We wish the organization had undertaken more efforts like this long ago. Nonetheless, late beats never, and we have been assured by Deitz that Audubon Nature Institute’s efforts to increase accessibility for all residents will remain whether this city-wide park millage proposal passes or not.

Deitz adds that if the millage proposal passes, Audubon Nature Institute will use its share for maintenance and improvement at all of its facilities, including the Louisiana Nature Center in New Orleans East and the Wilderness Park on the West Bank.

City Park’s Bob Becker says the Park will use the new dollars to fund repairs, improve storm water drainage and increase recreational and cultural programming. 

And if the millage passes, we expect to see similar efforts to increase accessibility for all residents to City Park facilities.

Becker says that the park has opened several new areas of walking, jogging and bike paths along with outdoor exercise equipment to the public for free.

And while that is nice, for $2 million in local taxpayer money, admission to amenities like Storyland, the Carousel Garden Amusement Park, Ghosts in the Oaks, Celebration in the Oaks and other special events throughout the year should be within economic reach of every resident of this city—not only to those able to afford expensive admission tickets, buy pricey season passes, or purchase costly memberships, especially in a city where more than 50 percent of the residents are housing cost burdened. To be honest, the way the park is operated now is reminiscent of a private venue. And while City Park has never received local funding, it does benefit from some state revenue, along with taking in a percentage of the video poker receipts from the New Orleans Race Track Fairgrounds. 

It seems to be an all too often ignored fact, but New Orleanians are also residents of Louisiana. Moreover, members of our communities are among the video poker customers that help make that portion of City Park’s revenue possible.

If nothing else, this 6.31 mils City-Wide Parks & Recreation Proposal, should it pass, makes every Orleans Parish resident a member.

And we demand our Fair Share!

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