Ron Forman makes over $700,000 per year, yet he’s acting like a beggar. And the worst part is, he’s not even an honest one.
Forman, the president and CEO of the Audubon Nature Institution (and erstwhile mayoral candidate), is seeking a new property tax millage. It would be of 50 years duration at a rate of 4.2 mills. Although the new millage would replace the existing 3.31 mills dedicated to the Audubon Zoo and the Aquarium of the Americas, it is not a renewal. It is a new millage.
This has not stopped Forman and many of his cheerleaders from pitching the new millage as a “renewal.” It brings to mind the old adage that it doesn’t matter if you call a duck a swan, it’s still a duck.
Even the Times-Picayune, which came out in support of the tax, called this characterization of the new tax “a stretch” because it amounts to “an increase, rather than a renewal.” When your own insufferable sycophants point out that your pants are ablaze, you’re in trouble.
So why is Forman mendaciously pitching this as a tax renewal? It’s because tax renewals fare far better at the polls than new taxes, and as a new tax, this is a highly dubious one.
The zoo and aquarium are already well-supported by admission fees and the existing millages. In fact, one could argue that instead of debating a new, higher millage, we should be talking about cutting the cord.
The present millages were introduced in the 70’s and 80’s to renovate the zoo and to get the aquarium off the ground. They were not intended to be permanent millstones around the necks of taxpayers, although that’s exactly what they’ve become. Audubon should strive to be self-supporting, not a burden on the city’s finances.
It doesn’t help that existing millages for Public Libraries and Parks and Recreation are 3.14 mills and 3.0 mills, respectively. Audubon is already getting more taxpayer money than similar public services that have the distinct virtue of being, well, free.
Worse, the Audubon Nature Institute has been vague about how the money is actually going to be used. There aren’t any detailed spending plans in the offing.
Allusions have been made to needed replacements and upgrades at the aquarium, the reopening of the Nature Center in New Orleans East, and a “reimagining” of the IMAX theater (whatever the heck that means). However, we’ve gotten no solid numbers that justify a millage increase, to say nothing of the existing millages.
Back in 1983, when Audubon initially pitched the new millage, it was pushing to build the aquarium – a single, major project. Voters gauged the value of that project, found it to be sound, and gave the new millage a “thumbs up.”
Now, Forman is coming to taxpayers, hat in hand, and can only invoke nebulous boogeymen. He notes that before the initial millage was approved for the zoo, it was called a “ghetto for animals.” However, the millage that supported the zoo is tiny in comparison to this proposal.
Forman has also argued that the Audubon Nature Institute is like a “shark” in that it needs to keep moving or it will die. This argument is completely baffling. Audubon is nothing like a shark. It has no real competition. It doesn’t need to indefinitely expand. There is no reason why Audubon can’t simply maintain its existing attractions.
And if I may be permitted a digression, the analogy Forman used is largely discredited. Most sharks can breathe while idle through a method known as “buccal” pumping, and even those species that can only breathe through movement, called “obligate ram breathers,” have been observed by researchers sitting still.
In other words, sharks can stop moving, and it won’t kill them. This would be a minor error were it not for the fact that Forman is CEO of the entity that manages the aquarium (so he should know better) and that the revised analogy is actually more apt.
But like any experienced beggar, Forman is pulling out all the stops. His story doesn’t have to make sense. All he needs is the emotional appeal. He’s counting on his own credibility and an unthinking, misguided notion of civic virtue carrying the day.
That day is coming soon. The vote is this Saturday, March 15th. We need to send a message that taxpayers in this city are already strapped, and in a city where basic infrastructure is failing left and right we shouldn’t be increasing millages for tourist attractions that charge admission.
This millage needs to be slapped down, and hard. Voters need to send a message that well-heeled beggars are unwelcome at the polls.
Owen Courrèges, a New Orleans attorney and resident of the Garden District, offers his opinions for UptownMessenger.com on Mondays. He has previously written for the Reason Public Policy Foundation.