Letter to the editor: Audubon has earned New Orleans’ continued support

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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.

20 thoughts on “Letter to the editor: Audubon has earned New Orleans’ continued support

  1. This letter ignores all the very fundamental criticisms of the institute, simply repeats the same old tired arguments, all of which are red herrings. It then attacks all the folks who dare to question how our tax money is being spent. How dare the peasants question the need for goldplating the trim on the bridles of the horses who who pull the king’s carriage?

    We should be thankful we’re allowed the privilege.

    Tar. Feathers.

    • jdrax,

      Exactly. Virtually no one has argued that the Audubon Institute’s facilities are poor, but that’s what this letter seems most defensive about. It’s slight of hand, distracting from the fact that Forman hasn’t made an argument from actual figures — he hasn’t shown that the Institute actually needs this money going on for the next 50 years.

      Even if I agree that Audubon is awesome and that it deserves a millage, I haven’t seen anybody make an argument for this particular millage. The earlier millages were designed to provide a specific amount of funding for specific projects. This new tax is just a general subsidy and it seems extremely high for that.

      This letter makes no meaningful contribution to this debate.

  2. Hmm…

    Scoreboard: One UM Columnist Pro tax – One UM columnist anti-tax

    One letter to the editor (Don’t see those very often) Pro tax

    UM- You owe us a another letter

  3. How can you say that Audubon has been a huge success when they’ve operated in the red in three of the last five years (check those public records that you alluded to). While I wholeheartedly agree with your statement of the zoo increasing the “quality of life” in New Orleans, the quality of life for a New Orleanian would be jeopardized by having to pay to get into the zoo AND pay taxes for the next 50 years on the zoo. It has to stop at some point. It’s just not right.

    Many of your statements are appalling. “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.” DO NOT GET PAID ENOUGH?! That statement is absolutely insulting to many of MY friends who work at one of the institutions, but cannot speak out about it for fear of getting fired. While Forman rakes in $750,000, the zookeepers and groundscrew make paltry salaries, many working a second job just to make ends meet. Raises and cost of living increases are virtually non-existant to the people who put their lives on the line day in and day out, working with dangerous, deadly animals or working on their exhibits.

    Your last paragraph is very telling. “We owe it to ourselves to continue funding its success.” Do we? It’s a private “non-profit” that doesn’t seem to know how to manage their money. Why should the public fund them when they are already paying ridiculous prices to enter the facilities?

    “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.” How is one supposed to find the time to volunteer when they are already working hard, and will now have to work harder if this passes?

    “We all benefit when we take care of our city in which we live.” This is true, but an even truer statement is we all benefit when we are TRUTHFUL and HONEST with one another. Why do they want this money? Why can’t they lay out exact plans for how this money will be used?

    Vote No on March 15. Audubon has New Orleans millages dedicated to them until 2021 and 2022. Let’s reassess the situation then when those expire and when, hopefully, Audubon knows how to manage their money.

    • fascinating! citizens are taxed, underpaid and underemployed and yet are asked to buy, consume products from entities that not only deny large scale employment or sufficient wages of the same citizens to make such consumption more probable, but hire foreign workers instead!

    • Hear, hear. And lest we forget, even if everything in this letter is true, it doesn’t make an argument for this particular millage. I want an argument as to why the Institute needs 4.2 mills. I don’t want a generic, evasive argument about how Audubon is is so awesome.

      Why 4.2 mills? Why not 2 mills? Why not 1.5 mills? If an argument doesn’t address these questions, it’s nonsense. This letter was completely vapid.

    • I’m aware of exactly the circumstances you are talking about regarding full-time employees at Audubon having to take second jobs just to make ends meet while L Ron makes $700k pitching scams to peoples. It’s infuriating.

  4. The letter writer is a lawyer who works against the people of the city, “Helping employers maintain union-free status” & “Practical, proactive consulting with CEOs, managers and human
    resources professionals about problematic labor and employment issues.” In other words, making sure CEOs like Ron Forman continue to reap huge salaries through raiding the public coffers for never-ending subsidies at the expense of the working class.

  5. Blah, blah, blah . . . . Tax increase, pure and simple, and you can’t change this fact that voting yes will result in a tax increase. This is not necessary for a private business. Brooke, can you try to justify Forman’s outlandish compensation?

  6. We all love the zoo and the aquarium and want to support it. But to have the executive who manages them draw down $750,000 a year in a city where they can’t fix the streetlights or potholes or get the vermin under control is flat-out absurd. Since existing revenues will continue for another 7 years, the institute should have plenty of time to rethink its priorities and get real. If I’m going to pay another $12 or $20 a year in taxes, I want it spent fixing streets that haven’t been repaved in my lifetime.

  7. Oh, and I forgot to mention how Audubon somehow bilked FEMA into giving them millions upon millions of dollars, and that a recent audit stated that Audubon owes FEMA almost $2 million due to mismanagement of said funds. Does that sound like “one of the truly great success stories of local government in our time”? You can’t ignore facts.

  8. This proposition lost my support when I was unable to find campaign finance reports in conjunction with this election, which as the writer must know are required by law. Audubon’s print and tv advertising also lack the legally required disclaimer, telling us who paid for the advertising — although the television advertising may have been corrected today. We have a right to know how much is being spent to influence our votes, and we have been denied that right in this proposition election.

    • From what I’ve heard, it’s at worst unethical — and at best, allowable — for an entity like ANI to “lobby for a cause like a tax” versus lobbying for a candidate. But I cannot cite applicable law.

  9. What is this tax for? Until you can answer that with something more specific than general “maintenance and capital improvements”, you don’t deserve the increased revenue especially when ANI does such a poor job of maintaining the revenue-neutral assets it already “owns”. If ANI had asked for a true renewal of existing millage and/or had a specific goal/need in mind (nature center), that would be one thing. This is something different altogether.

    NOLA has too many critical needs to be able to afford this new tax. Don’t forget that our S&W bills are due to double in the next five years both Entergy and Cox are raising rates to pay for infrastructural investments, property taxes and homeowners insurance have both skyrocketed since Katrina and too few salaries have kept pace with these increases (except for maybe Mr. Forman’s). I know my employer has issued a salary freeze with no raises this year.

    If we’re going to fund discretionary programs, how about dedicating this nearly $12M annually to after-school enrichment programs, public libraries, communal green spaces and the like. If we’re talking about attractions to draw in more tourists, as some comments mentioned, let’s develop the riverfront, lakefront, or other areas of the city that are free of admission and of benefit to tourists and residents alike. If we’re talking about animal welfare, how about using it for non-exotic species and fund the SPCA, spay/neuter programs and no-kill shelters?

    In the words of Mr. Forman: “We must work quickly to stimulate the local economy and generate a stronger revenue stream flowing to city government. However, WE WILL NOT INCREASE TAXES on our citizens. New Orleans cannot tax its way to solvency.” Quote directly from Ron Forman’s 2006 mayoral platform (http://formanformayor.com/docs/RonFormanPlan.pdf).

  10. Let’s say, arguendo, that I concede the following points:

    1. The Audubon Institute does exceptional work.

    2. The Audubon Institute is an excellent steward of public funds.

    3. The Audubon Institute deserves a healthy revenue stream.

    3. The Audubon Institute deserves a dedicated tax millage.

    Even then, it isn’t clear why somebody should vote for this millage. Your argument fails because it doesn’t address why the Audubon Institute needs 4.2 mills, specifically, as opposed to some other amount.

    The 4.2 mills was calculated for specific construction, expansion, and renovation plans. This new tax is supposedly just to ensure that Audubon has a healthy revenue stream. But why does Audubon need a 4.2 millage to do that? You have no argument as to this issue, and it’s really the only issue here.

  11. Thankful that L Ron Hubb…oops I mean Forman has been sent back to the drawing board. “Without getting bogged down in semantics” … yeah, when you need to gloss over an unpleasant truth semantics can indeed be a bit of a bother. It was a tax increase and Forman boldly lied repeatedly about that.

  12. I worked at the Zoo years ago and befriended numerous zoo keepers who were literally living hand to mouth. As I recall, the attrition rate was rate was relatively low, but only because its is a very nice zoo in a fantastic setting, in a world class city. That seemed to be the primary reason most stuck it out…where else are you going to go? Cleveland? I dont think so.
    Ron Forman has kept a tight grip on who is rewarded and given preferential treatment. It no doubt has been and continues to be a highly insular place, answering to essentially no one, outside of the commission.

  13. At the risk of offending family and friends who have worked with the Zoo and the Institute over the years, I would suggest that the Institute, which has certainly improved the zoo, park and constructed the aquarium, is now somewhat bloated and short on goals, other than expanding revenue. This happens in many organizations, the goal becomes simply expanding the organization and taking in more money.

    I personally would prefer the money go to pot holes, street lights and police. I find those needs much more compelling than an undefined assurance that this money will provide for a first class zoo years down the road. Less pot holes, more working street lights and more police will do much more to improve my quality of life than the assurance that the zoo will be world class in 2050.

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