Owen Courreges: Admission-based Audubon Zoo does not need your tax money

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Owen Courreges

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.

47 thoughts on “Owen Courreges: Admission-based Audubon Zoo does not need your tax money

  1. Thanks for writing this. Seems that Mr. Forman and some of the other well-paid executives could take a pay cut and help close the gap without the fearmongering and silly analogies. Or perhaps Audubon could apply some of the taxpayer money they’ve been granted towards the reopening of the Audubon Nature Center (you know, pursue the advancement of education instead of chasing ticket sales revenues) rather than throw away millions “reimagining” exhibits like the Caribbean Tunnel, which seems to be going the direction of a mini-Atlantis.

  2. Well done, Owen, particularly the ichthyology. If there’s an opening for a shark handler at the Aquarium, you might want to apply.

  3. Craig,

    I didn’t get much into the issue of Audubon’s executive salaries, but I think it’s apparent that it’s a top-heavy organization and taxpayer money shouldn’t be used to line their pockets. If the Audubon Nature Institute were extremely lean and could articulate some need for expansion, perhaps there would be something to discuss. Instead, we’re getting vague platitudes.

    • How is making Forman’s salary the lead sentence of your article not “getting into exec’s salaries”? It’s like saying, Exxon or BP or Texaco shouldn’t (insert pipeline or drilling issue of the day) because salaries are high and they get taxpayer subsidies. And the oil companies charge for their product too!

      The Audubon programs have brought about amazing transformation of city attractions that could have kept going under inertia in an old tattered 50’s way. Audubon has been good for the city bringing much needed family-style activity, and deserves a solid funding base that will outlast the executives whose salaries seem to raise such jealousy.

      • TravelLAr,

        First of all, I only mentioned Forman’s salary — I didn’t note that several other executives under him are earning six figures.

        Secondly, I would dispute that oil companies receive significant subsidies (this is too complex an issue to discuss here) but if they started getting a dedicated property tax millage, I can promise you I’d be making the same argument.

        The rest of what you say is just a blank check argument and one that misses the point: Audubon does positive things, but this millage is about nebulous expansion plans, not maintaining operations.

      • Oh please, it’s not about jealousy. It’s about a 700K salary on the backs of the taxpayers. And then there are other 6 figure administrators? The city has many more severe infrastructure needs. Taxing the citizens to pay Foreman 700K is an abject disgrace.

  4. Good article. Another thing that bothers me about Audubon is its relationship with Chicago Fire/Carrollton Soccer/Carrollton Boosters and the use of the Butterfly complex behind the zoo. What’s going on there? Chicago Fire, the primary user of the fields, is also the “Rental Liaison” in charge of leasing out fields to user groups who wish to use the facility. It’s no secret that soccer gets first shot at dates and fields, even when other groups try to reserve the facilities well in advance. If my taxes go towards this beautiful facility, shouldn’t I have an equal opportunity to rent the fields?

  5. It’s so refreshing to have a news source (however small and local it may be) that actually gives more than one point of view. Thanks for the piece, Owen. And keep it up, Uptown Messenger.

  6. For perspective, Forman makes roughly the equivalent to the salaries of the Mayor and entire City Council…..combined

  7. I was hired as an actor, in one of Ron Forman’s commercials for mayor. We shot at his house, which I’m willing to say, was enormous, and friggin’ NICE. Big, uptown mansion. He doesn’t seem to be hurting for cash.

  8. I’m done with early voting! This is the second time that I’ve regretted a vote after a news story broke in the week before the election. I had read that the Audubon millage was a just renewal, and voted yes. Now I feel horribly misled.

    • While I may take a different stance on the tax, I completely agree about early voting. In any race or ballot issue, things can change at the last moment, especially when the public and media finally start to dig below the surface into the candidates or the proposals. That’s why I still consider it as “absentee voting” despite the name change, and will do it only if I must be out of town on election day.

  9. Forman did mention much of what the money is planned to be spent upon –

    “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 competition is not within the city, but with other cities – Atlanta and San Diego have two of the best Aquariums in the nation, and they continuously upgrade them. When national conventions are choosing cities to come to, a wide panoply of attractions are considered, and New Orleans has been fighting against the perception for years now that the city is more than adult entertainment and the zoo and aquarium have gone a long way towards strengthening that argument.

    Don’t be shortsighted and think public money shouldn’t go to a private non-profit when that private non-profit contributes back to the city in terms of total business for everyone, from single tourists to entire conventions and cruise ships. Running the zoo and aquarium are not cheap, and that’s just keeping them going, not spending on infrastructure improvements every few years. Forman earned his salary precisely with how much work he’s put into improving Audubon for everyone – he could work anywhere he wanted to with his track record, but stays here.

    Obviously vote how you like, but I find your opinion to be stilted towards the libertarian viewpoint on the matter, and not on the good these institutions do the city.

    • legalnola,

      Those are still vague plans. Did Forman come out with budget figures showing how much these things would cost to justify the tax increase? No. He’s rambling off a laundry list of things he claims the Institute is planning on doing, but he’s not getting down to brass tacks and linking them with a pressing need for a new millage.

      “We have some plans to do stuff” is simply not a good argument when you’re a non-profit private entity with virtually no municipal oversight.

      As for competition with other cities, I think that’s ridiculous. We do not have to maintain a zoo and/or aquarium that’s better than San Diego’s or Atlanta’s to maintain tourism. Those cities are more well-heeled than ours and have few other draws. You’re vastly overstating the importance of the aquarium and zoo, and even if the case were otherwise, the fact remains that the need for additional monies has not been shown. Where are the numbers?

      You may think that Forman is a great guy who deserves a blank check, but I think we need more than blind trust in Foreman to commit this kind of millage (far more than we’re paying for free services like libraries) to a private non-profit that charges admission to its facilities. I just don’t see how your argument has a leg to stand on.

  10. Great article. I have to wonder about the CEO of a “Non-Profit Institute” who gets a $700,000.00 a year salary.
    Working for the Audubon Institute must be the best gig in town IMO. And they want even more money?

  11. When they fix the shelter between magazine and the zoo along with the broken fountain, I’ll think about it. These non revenue generating structured have been in disrepair for 10+ years. So FU too Ron.

  12. I’m curious if the Audubon Nature Institute will come out before the end of the week and make an argument about services to be cut and other “horrible things” in an attempt to scare voters. IF the millage does not pass, I’m expecting higher admissions prices and reasoning of “well, we tried to pass the millage to keep prices low and the voters of Orleans Parish just forced our hand.” Can’t wait for the guilt trip.

    • Maybe they’ll threaten to shut off the decorative lights on the bridge across the Louisiana Bayou exhibit as retaliation…

    • TraveLAr,

      That’s a lie that Gambit has told and you shouldn’t spread it. The present combined Audubon millage is 3.31, period. There’s no debate on that.

    • Looking into this millage amount, I think Gambit has missed the boat. From The Advocate:

      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.


  13. Thanks so much for writing
    this. I’m so glad you give a different viewpoint than the Times Picayune.

    IMHO, Forman should be fired for several reasons:
    First, I’m 100% certain that the Audubon organization can find someone capable of running the program for a more affordable rate, especially in today’s economy. (Due diligence in keeping costs down, Audubon Board?)

    Second, if Forman has been representing this proposal as simply a “renewal” to conceal that this is really an increase in taxes, he should be fired simply for being deceitful and being misleading to the public.

    Third, change is good. I admit Forman has enhanced the zoo. But it is time for new direction and new leadership. He is a dinosaur, and it is time for him to hand over the leadership to the next generation.
    It will happen sooner or later, and it may as well happen now while he
    is in good health and can help with the transition.

    Fourth, it is brazen, foolish, dangerous pride for a leader like Forman to simply ask for a blank check of millions, with no detailed plans in place for how to spend the money. There needs to be public
    accountability for such a large public tax. For example, what stops him and his friends on the board from simply using the money to increase their outrageous salaries?

    They should can him.

  14. hanks for driving the dialogue – there needs to be one! you are right on some of this, and wrong on some. Learning centers like zoos and nature centers must always improve and grow to survive and thrive. but that doesn’t always mean spend more money! We should have one of the best zoos in the country. Audubon zoo is an embarrassment to the city. It is a terrible zoo. The worst. I don’t think people really want to line more pockets, and then go see the trashiest, dirtiest, saddest zoo in the country. I would be happy to pay a little tax to really, really get the zoo turned around! But there isn’t much faith that anything will change, since any new money will just go towards throwing more bogus black tie fundraising events so they have something important to do on a Saturday night and pat themselves on the back for ‘doing good’. Meanwhile… Audubon is rotting.

  15. I don’t think this tax is about paying Forman. I have been on the boards of non-profits, and one great concern is finding the way to keep the organization energetic and successful once the founder or driving figure moves on. Set up the structure so that the future doesn’t depend on one leader, and be sure to have good executives and board members who can take on the necessary vision. I think the tax is about quality of life for generations to come.

  16. I don’t always agree with Owen but in this issue he is spot on. Let me add a few other points for consideration in support of a “No” vote on this millage. The Audubon Institute is a big money maker and they don’t need this additional source of revenue to stay competitive. They use slave/prison labor from the Sheriffs Dept., they pay rock-bottom wages to their employees, they host countless fundraisers, private party rentals, they don’t pay taxes, they charge a huge mark-up on all the concessions on gift shop goods and so on.
    Ron is very good at what he does which is make money for them and himself. This millage is just another ingredient to the honeypot. They don’t need it.
    The worst thing of all is whenever you buy anything at the zoo, the workers are required to say “Donate an extra $1 to feed the animals?” Is Ron threatening to starve them if I don’t? Can they not afford to feed them with my $3 soda? Surely this isn’t just some shameless attempt to guilt us all into emptying our wallets? Why not train the monkeys to pick our pockets?
    Final food for thought, Ron Forman drives a Maybach while running a non-profit.

    • LGD Resident: You pointed out something very disturbing. i.e.

      the workers are required to say “Donate an extra $1 to feed the animals?”

      So, customers are supposed to donate $1 dollar to a place where the CEO make $700,000?


      Colby Spath: For perspective, Forman makes roughly the equivalent to the salaries of the Mayor and entire City Council…..combined

      So, you and the other aquarium visitors are also supposed to donate $1 dollar to an institution where the CEO makes more than the Mayor and entire City Council combined?

      If I were Mr. A. Manning, Dr. Francis and anyone who has the really large YES signs in Orleans Parish, I would get my quotes, photos and name off that vote yes for the tax millage of the aquarium. This goes to show how OUT-OF-TOUCH many of the power brokers in Orleans Parish are with the businesses and residents in the city.

  17. “It doesn’t help that existing millages for Public Libraries and Parks
    and Recreation are 3.14 mills and 3.0 mills, respectively.”

    Can you elaborate? Are we talking about NORD facilities or is this inclusive of City Park as well? If we do a millage for Audubon, why not also for THE city’s park and not just the uptown park?

    • nola2nyc,

      I basing that statement on the figures and terms from the assessor’s office. I would imagine it is all-inclusive, but even if it leaves out City Park, I’d imagine we’re still paying less for parks than we are to Audubon.

  18. Dee,

    Exactly. What I see here is Forman taking advantage of the situation. Most people agree that the Institute has done a fair job in maintaining and expanding its facilities, and Forman has generated some public goodwill as a result. Now, instead of living up to that reputation by being transparent and frugal with taxpayer dollars, he’s asking for a tax increase with a 50 year duration sans detailed numbers and plans.

    He’s overreaching, and instead of saying “well, I like Forman and Audubon does some good things,” people need to be skeptical and ask themselves whether Forman has actually made his case for this particular tax proposal. It’s clear to me that he has not.

  19. TraveLAr,

    Well, Forman’s pitching this as largely about some kind of tourism arms race, not as something about the “quality of life” for New Orleanians (who have to suffer a greatly depleted tax based and decaying infrastructure that gets worse daily). This tax still makes no sense. I’ve seen no credible argument for it.

  20. Isn’t City Park all funded from operations and private donations? Don’t City Park officials say It receives no public taxes from millages or city funding? Can someone verify this?

    • I visited the botanical gardens this weekend, and what City Park is doing out there is fantastic. Major new vision is being implemented out there. Tulane has a farm and laboratory just north of I-610 in the park, and the old North golf course is growing into some lovely wild lands. The Cotiure forest is healing from Katrina, with hundreds (if not thousands) of new plantings, and educational guide signs all over. Perhaps Mr. Foreman and his board should be taking some notes from the City Park folks.

  21. how bout we vote this down this weekend and next election we vote to end the millages that are on there now? i’d rather spend money on baseball bats and helmets and such for every nord park and get a proper NORD system up and running instead of fueling a maybach.

  22. Is $50/ year for every $200,000 of home worth all that much to continue to pay for the advancement of science, conservation, and a jewel of New Orleans that is an attraction? Yes, deep down in my heart I know the blank check method is ridiculous, and yes, the execs get paid a pretty penny (I want that job!), but relative to the other millage we pay for services that really go unrendered or are horribly managed, I do trust that the Audubon Institute will continue their excellence in what they do. It isn’t just a place for animals and marine life.

    Yes, transparency is nice…but I think this is $50 of my money well spent!

    • Dave,

      The reason we don’t get services for other millages is that they’re not getting enough money for the functions they perform. If the Parks Department had Audubon’s budget I’m sure they’d be providing far nicer parks. If we had virtually any budget for street repairs at all, I’m sure we’d have better streets. There is some mismanagement to be certain, but money helps and Audubon has it. I think they have more than enough of it, and if I’m wrong on that, Audubon hasn’t stepped up to the plate to show otherwise.

      Transparency isn’t just “nice,” it’s essential to authorizing any millage. If you’re approving millages without transparency, then I’m just going to say it — you’re being a bad citizen, and your vote makes us all worse off. You’re forcing other people to hand over their hard-earned money when you openly admit that you don’t have all the facts. If there isn’t transparency, then your vote reeks of being based on some Ron Forman personality cult and not anything reasonable or rational.

      • Owen Courreges, you, my friend, are ON POINT. I am so hopeful that the vote does not pass tomorrow, and if it does not, thank you for being a part of that.

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