Proposed 50-year millage for Audubon generating controversy

Ron Forman arrived at a ground-floor conference room at the Audubon Aquarium of the Americas on the riverfront. He was there for an interview about a ballot measure asking voters to continue subsidizing Audubon’s various family attractions with a property tax.

The first thing he did was slide open a set of metal doors on the wall, revealing a big circular window in the side of a 400,000-gallon fish tank swarming with stingrays, tarpon and sharks.

This, for good reason, is where Forman likes to ask donors for money, and with the ballot measure coming up Saturday, he will be making what amounts to his biggest “ask” in his nearly four decades leading the Audubon Commission, a public agency, and the nonprofit Audubon Nature Institute. The institute manages Audubon Park, Audubon Zoo, the aquarium, the Audubon Butterfly Garden and Insectarium, Woldenberg Park and other facilities on behalf of the commission.

Voters will decide whether to replace two property taxes that have been on the books for decades with one new tax that, at current assessment levels, would bring in nearly $12 million annually.

The existing taxes will expire in a few years; the new one would last for half a century.

If it doesn’t pass, Forman warns, New Orleans will inevitably be eclipsed in a kind of tourism arms race by destinations that continue to invest in bigger and better facilities. “We would probably hang on a few years, but eventually, we would decline and not be the attraction we are today,” he said.

Even so, it’s a proposition that has raised eyebrows for a number of reasons, not just the big dollar figure involved or the unusually long 50-year expiration date.

Unlike the last time Forman asked taxpayers for money — back in 1986 to build the aquarium — there has been little public discussion of what the institute plans to do with the extra cash. And that’s despite plenty of time for debate: Audubon’s existing millages won’t expire until 2021 and 2022.

What’s more, the ballot question arrives as City Hall grapples with how to pay for a seemingly endless list of other priorities: a local jail in need of reform, an understaffed police force, public schools that could always use more support and many others.

As much as the Audubon Nature Institute serves as a public resource and tourism draw, it is also a private entity that charges for access to its attractions, pays more than half a dozen executives six-figure salaries and has rarely faced the kind of scrutiny other agencies do over how it allots public dollars.

“A 50-year millage, well, maybe that’s more common than I realize, but I’ve never heard of such a long millage,” Inspector General Ed Quatrevaux said. He declined to offer an opinion on how voters should respond but said Audubon will show up on his office’s next strategic plan, which lays out which areas of local government he intends to prioritize.

“All organizations that perform government functions need oversight,” Quatrevaux said. “The Audubon Commission has not really had that oversight in the past.”

Forman said he is confident taxpayers think Audubon is doing a good job with public money and will show it in voting booths Saturday, just as they did nearly 30 years ago.

As the sharks and rays drifted by to his left, he recalled a pithy bumper-sticker slogan that appeared before the aquarium vote in 1986: “Fish or kids?” There was a School Board millage up for adoption at the same time, but as it turned out, the fish won and the School Board went begging. Forman said voters sent a clear signal: “We would give money for kids, but we don’t have confidence in the School Board.”

By contrast, he said, Audubon had taken a dedicated property tax passed during Mayor Moon Landrieu’s administration in the 1970s and turned a zoo once reviled as a “ghetto for animals” into a world-class attraction, providing a needed draw for families as tourism became an ever more critical component of the New Orleans economy.

Now, Forman argues, Audubon — like a shark — needs to keep moving or perish in the face of competition.

He pointed out the aquarium is almost a quarter-century old and needs upgrades to basic systems. A dozen different projects — including renovations to the tropical birdhouse and the African savannah — are planned for the zoo.

Aware of the city’s political geography, the institute also is planning to resurrect the Audubon Louisiana Nature Center in New Orleans East and house the Alliance for Sustainable Wildlife — a center for replenishing endangered species — on the West Bank.

The 50-year guarantee of regular money would give extra confidence to the bond markets and donors necessary to pay for all this, he said, and locking the tax rate in now would give Audubon time to get ready for the city’s tricentennial in 2018.

On the issue of equity — Forman makes more than $500,000 in annual salary, while a child’s ticket at the zoo costs $12 — he said one program or another brings local kids to Audubon attractions every day at either steeply discounted rates or for free. Probably the biggest such program, run by the Patrick F. Taylor Foundation, offers about 170,000 Louisiana students free annual zoo memberships for getting good grades in school.

Forman acknowledged that the public campaign to pass the millage kicked off only recently, but he put it down to a crowded political season rather than a concerted attempt to fly under the radar. He said the City Council put the question on the March 15 ballot, which is expected to draw a sharply lower turnout than the Feb. 1 vote, in order to free up attention and airwaves after the mayoral and most council races ended.

The institute recently put out a new TV ad starring Archie Manning, among others.

“Between the mayor’s race and then Mardi Gras, we got lost,” Forman said. “No one was paying attention.”

Still, the volume of grumbling over the proposed tax seems to have hit a new pitch over the past couple of weeks, typified by a sharply worded editorial in the New Orleans Tribune that recommended the institute instead consider “a salary cut for some of its top-paid execs.”

It has not helped that while the institute is pitching the ballot measure as a “renewal,” the effect ultimately would be to raise taxes on many homeowners, albeit by a relatively small amount.

Audubon is asking for the same total millage rate that voters originally approved for the zoo and aquarium taxes, but the council trimmed that rate during the Nagin administration. So the applied millage would rise from 3.31 mills to 4.2 mills, bringing the annual tax bill for a home worth $200,000, with a homestead exemption, from $41.38 to $52.50.

Even if the increase is small, there is always the question of how far taxpayers are willing to go when the next millage comes up for a vote.

Bob Becker, CEO of City Park, which has no dedicated tax, said he support’s Audubon’s ballot measure. But he is also trying to follow the same playbook as Forman: to show voters he can manage what he has and then ask for more. City Park is $116 million into a $153 million fundraising campaign for capital projects, and Becker — a former top Audubon official — hopes the result will convince voters to pitch in some money for upkeep a few years from now.

“We don’t really have a timeline,” Becker said. “But we could certainly use additional public support, and we hope at the right time, voters will be supportive of us.”