Public pushes city officials about funding proposal for Audubon and City Park

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A lone waterbird stands at the edge of the lagoon at Audubon Park. The proposed millage reallocation would give the park funding for drainage and storm management. (Uptown Messenger file photo)

By Nicholas Reimann, A community meeting Monday night on the proposed parks and recreation overhaul brought out numerous questions, comments and criticisms from the public, as city officials faced a skeptical crowd trying to defend a proposed reallocation of tax dollars. Voters will decide May 4 whether to approve the city proposal to shift the current allocation of over $20 million in property taxes used to fund parks and recreation, which would notably provide City Park with city funding for the first time in its 169-year history.

Cynthia Scott speaks at a community forum Monday at St. Mary’s Dominican High School. City officials took questions from those in attendance regarding a millage reallocation plan.​ (Nicholas Reimann, Uptown Messenger)

One concern not present Monday night was of the threat of higher taxes, though, as the current 6.31 mill rate would stay the same. Still, many questioned the wisdom of how the city plans to use their money. “What is the justification for continuing to give money to Audubon?” asked David Newman, a resident of Mid-City. The proposed reallocation — which would be in effect for 20 years if passed — would cut the millage for the Audubon Commission from 3.31 mills down to 1.95, lowering its city funding from almost $11 million a year to just under $6.6 million. But Newman questioned why even that much funding is necessary, seeing as how Audubon generates revenue through admission fares for many of its properties. That was echoed by another speaker, who asked why the much-larger City Park property will get less than a third of Audubon’s funding under the proposal. City Park is set for .61 mills of funding, equal to about $2 million in taxpayer money. “These funds are critical for us,” Audubon spokeswoman Rebecca Dietz said of the concerns. Dietz added that only four of Audubon’s 10 properties in New Orleans have admission fees, and said that the public funding going forward will allow for additional tree care, drainage and storm-water management for Audubon properties. The current millage is restricted to funding the zoo and aquarium, she said. Bob Becker, CEO of City Park, said he’s fine with how the funding would be divvied up, adding that all parties — the Audubon Commission, the New Orleans Recreation Development Commission, the Department of Parks and Parkways, and City Park — agreed on how the millage should be split. The idea for the proposal started in 2016, after a Trust for Public Land study showed a lack of sustainable revenue between park entities in New Orleans. A city master plan was then adopted in 2018, calling for more coordination between the parks. Mayor LaToya Cantrell then proposed the reallocation, and the City Council approved the ballot measure. After the question-and-answer session Monday, District A Councilman Joe Giarrusso tried to reassure the approximately 50 people who came to St. Mary’s Dominican High School for the meeting, saying that he’s considering the public’s input. “This is not a static process — this is going to be iterate,” he told the forum. Emily Wolff, who represented Cantrell’s office at the meeting, said that it’s time for a reallocation like this, which she claims will result in a more fair distribution of taxpayer funds going forward. “This is a real win, as we see it, for all New Orleanians,” she said.

A crowd of about 50 people gathers Monday at St. Mary’s Dominican High School for a community forum. (Nicholas Reimann, Uptown Messenger)

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