Audubon tax overwhelmingly rejected by voters

The Audubon Commission asked, and voters said no, thank you, rejecting a ballot initiative Saturday that would have established a 50-year property tax to fund renovations and new exhibits at the city’s zoo, aquarium and other attractions. The 4.2-mill tax was expected to bring in nearly $12 million a year at current assessment levels.

The nonprofit Audubon Nature Institute, which runs a portfolio of first-class tourist and educational attractions for the commission, has been subsidized by taxpayers for decades. In the 1970s, during Mayor Moon Landrieu’s tenure, voters approved a property tax to help upgrade the zoo, which had come under withering criticism for the condition of animals there. Then, in the 1980s, voters OK’d a second tax to build the Audubon Aquarium of the Americas, a move aimed at countering the draw of Bourbon Street with a more family-friendly tourist attraction.

The effort to replace those two property taxes, which were due to expire in 2021 and 2022, ran into controversy at the last moment in part because there was no single, obvious objective for the money in mind. The Audubon Nature Institute covers most of its operating expenses by charging admission fees, and its executives, including CEO Ron Forman, are paid lucrative salaries.

The ballot measure that voters rejected Saturday would have amounted to a tax increase for most homeowners and was proposed in the midst of an ongoing debate in New Orleans over how to fund other pressing needs, such as improvements at the Police Department and Orleans Parish Prison.

Technically, the millage rate that was sought — 4.2 mills — was the equivalent of the two millages that voters approved in the 1970s and ’80s. But after Hurricane Katrina, the City Council rolled those rates back to a total of 3.31 mills. Had the new millage been approved, the tax bill for someone with a $200,000 home, factoring in a homestead exemption, would have risen from $41.38 to $52.50.

Forman, who has led Audubon for nearly four decades, argued during the campaign that continued taxpayer support is necessary if New Orleans is going to keep up with other cities in providing attractions that draw millions of visitors to the city each year.

The aquarium is now a quarter of a century old and needs upgrades to its basic systems, he said. The zoo has various projects in the works, including upgrades to the tropical birdhouse and African savannah.

In Algiers, the Audubon Institute is operating the Alliance for Sustainable Wildlife, a center for replenishing endangered species, and in New Orleans East, it is bringing back the Louisiana Nature Center next to Joe Brown Park.

Forman made a case for passing the millage now, rather than waiting until the existing millages expire, so the institute could start building toward the city’s tricentennial in 2018, an event Mayor Mitch Landrieu hopes will showcase New Orleans.