By Brooke Duncan III
It’s unfortunate that some have taken to social and other media to bash Audubon, one of the truly great success stories of local government in our time. The millage started out at 4.2 but was reduced a few years ago as a result of a state-wide reassessment of property values when values declined following Katrina. Without getting bogged down in semantics, the tax has been in place for a long time and the proposal returns the millage to its prior level. The difference for a home valued at $200,000 has been reported to be around $12 a year. The current taxes will end in 2021-2022. This is an effort to establish the taxes at the former millage; this is not a new tax in addition to the existing tax.
Much has been implied if not said outright to question the stewardship of Audubon’s resources. At the risk of appearing merely defensive of family and friends who have worked with Audubon, it is worth noting that the composition of the Commission and the Institute (separate bodies) has been a who’s who of responsible and hard-working civic activists who, needless to say, do not get paid enough for the work they do and do not deserve the vitriol which has erupted in recent weeks. The suggestion that they have squandered the money–or worse, used the money for their own benefit–is sad in its ignorance and insulting in its characterization of good people. The notion that these volunteers have worked without oversight betrays ignorance of the fact that the Commission is appointed by the mayor–it is a public body whose meetings and records are public. The caliber and character of those who oversee Audubon and the history of Audubon’s employment of its resources provide plenty of comfort that Audubon will continue to excel and benefit our community. Ron Forman is paid a great deal of money–as are many other CEOs who have run highly successful organizations. Would that our other local leaders over the years have managed such successful operations that we would want to have paid them so well.
To the commentators who have complained that Audubon charges admission and these revenues should be sufficient, as is well-known, nonprofits often do not derive sufficient income from the gate. One supposes Audubon could ratchet down to a budget based on gate admissions alone but in time Audubon would cease to be the first-class operation it is. As just one example, the Aquarium is now 25 years old and has had thousands and thousands of visitors. It will be due soon for an overhaul.
Similarly, the notion that this tax revenue should be diverted from Audubon to more pressing needs, while superficially appealing, ignores that a vibrant and successful city depends on a variety of services and emoluments–libraries, an art museum, parks, recreation, a world-class zoo and aquarium. As a former police officer with a son who is an NOPD officer, I’m all for devoting more tax revenue to public safety–more officers with better equipment. We’d all like our streets to be free of potholes. Indeed, as a city we could make the value judgments that parks, zoos, libraries, etc. are luxuries we cannot afford while we suffer an under-resourced police department and deplorable streets. Fine, let’s do it. But we don’t because we all recognize, and especially in the case of Audubon, how these other institutions enrich our lives here in NOLA. One can argue that Audubon’s success has led to other successful quality-of-life initiatives, such as the re-energized NORD or the re-built City Park, to name a few.
What really seems to bug Audubon’s critics is their conclusion that the millage vote was sprung on them, that they lack sufficient time to consider the issue. In fact, as has been explained elsewhere, the City Council placed the issue on the March 15 ballot so as to avoid confusing voters with too many issues on the Feb. 1 ballot for so many elected offices. Perhaps that was a miscalculation, but hysteria and paranoia propel the notion that Audubon has schemed to sneak the initiative past the public.
At the end of the proverbial day, Audubon has been a huge success, a truly bright spot in local government. We owe it to ourselves to continue funding its success. Those who would deny Audubon a continued healthy revenue stream should take a step back and consider how our city would be if we did not have Audubon. By all means, they should remain watchful of how our tax dollars are spent. In fact, they should become involved, they should volunteer time and expertise, to make Audubon even more successful. And if not Audubon, then hopefully they will channel their energy toward other local nonprofits. We all benefit when we take care of our city in which we live.
Brooke Duncan III is a New Orleans attorney and civic activist. Members of his family have been involved in the Audubon Nature Institute for many years.