The members of the New Orleans City Council who are elected this fall should work to create a single, unified system governing all the city’s parks and recreation, according to three candidates for the open At-Large seat on the council, and then should find ways to redirect money to it without raising taxes.
Saturday afternoon’s forum, hosted by the progressive civic-engagement group Indivisible NOLA on Saturday afternoon, featured questions both from activists within the group on issues of housing affordability, mental-health and the jail size, but also a wider range of topics from the audience.
Keith Hardie, a Carrollton neighborhood activist, reminded the candidates that a proposed property-tax to support the Audubon Institute had failed, in part because voters wanted their tax money to go to a wider range of recreation activities. The city, however, has no unified public parks system — it has individual boards that govern specific properties like Audubon Park, a recreation department, and even a Parks and Parkways department that handles other green spaces.
Would the candidates be in favor of uniting this “Balkanized” collection of agencies, Hardie asked, into a single public parks department like other cities? And would they then support a new property tax dedicated to funding it?
State Rep. Helena Moreno, answering first, said she would support a unified parks system. But, before she would try to create a new tax for it, she would try to create new opportunities for partnerships.
“Along with the unified park system, which obviously I would support, one thing I would like to do is start really working with the School Board and see what we can do with a lot of these schools,” Moreno said. “I don’t want to go and focus on building a gym if there is a school in this particular neighborhood that has a gym, and at 3 o’clock the school shuts down and they have a perfect gym.”
The school facilities, Moreno said, could move out of a weekday model into becoming “almost into new community centers,” with weekend events and gatherings as well. Moreno said she would also try to focus on new recreation opportunities for teen girls as well as for teen boys, such as by matching midnight basketball with a similar midnight volleyball program.
What the parks and the schools have in common, said State Rep. Joe Bouie, is that both have suffered from the post-Katrina trend of “privatizing” governmental services — through chartering the local schools to individual nonprofit boards or outsourcing the parks to the New Orleans Recreation Department Commission.
“We are actually privatizing almost all of our public assets. I have serious concerns about that … to take the community’s voice out of their tax dollars,” Bouie said, noting that the school were open to more neighborhood events before charters took them over. “Prior to the privatization of our schools, that’s how we used the schools.”
Like Moreno, Bouie said he would “clearly” support unifying the park system, but hesitate to create a new tax for recreation, and would instead support looking at the money already going to NORDC, which clearly hasn’t solved the city’s problems.
“You see the kids out there hustling the dollars and dimes for uniforms,” Bouie said. “That is ludicrous.”
Businessman Kenneth Cutno said recreation is one of many examples of a city function that needs to be scrapped and rebuilt from the ground up. For starters, the salaries of leaders at the Audubon Institute are too high, he said.
“Cut it,” Cutno said. “That’s more money for us. That good-old-boy system, cut it. All this unnecessary government regulation, cut it.”
He would also cut midnight basketball, he said, because it keeps kids out the streets too late. He would replace them with midnight job-training programs, not basketball, he said.
The candidates also questioned the need for a new Entergy power plant, and discussed their views on affordable housing, mental-health treatment and other issues during a Saturday afternoon forum.
To read our live coverage of the candidates’ responses on other issues, see below.