BATISTE: Beware Pickpockets And Greedy Tax Bills In New Orleans

While New Orleans taxpayers should be anticipating a tax break, entities that operate with public money have their collective hands out for more taxpayer money. They are not acting like the beggars at most major intersections in New Orleans. The group behind this tax combined forces and disguised itself as youth advocates. The coalition wants to pass a new tax because an old tax on New Orleanians is nearing expiration. Meaning the group’s outstretched hands are metaphorically holding guns on residents to get a hunk of what is in their wallets.

The May 4th vote will decide whether property owners will pay a 6.31-mill tax for 20 years to support the Audubon Commission, the City’s Department of Parks and Parkways, the New Orleans Recreation Development Commission, and City Park. Property owners currently pay the same millage amount, so defeating this tax would actually alleviate some of the high cost of living strapped upon Orleans Parish residents.

The coalition must be nervous as a tax for seniors was demolished by voters in March. 71% of voters opposed a higher millage for the Council on Aging. Mayor LaToya Cantrell opposed that tax on the basis that infrastructure has higher priority.  Valid point.  And one that also applies to the May 4th vote. But people are fed up with being taxed at every opportunity.

After the 2014 millage defeat, Forman told NOLA.com in 2014 that he heard feedback such as “We have other priorities in the community that maybe need to be looked at, and to dedicate that money to Audubon right now was going to be difficult.” Yet he’s back once again asking for money for a self-sufficient business that people can barely drive to without their car vibrating to pieces or disappearing in a pothole.

The 2019 campaign once again involves significant marketing. While these organizations beg for support, keep in mind they’ve spent an undisclosed sum on advertising to get more of your money, and that money should have gone to the Parks and NORD if they are in such need of it.

The 2019 tax vote is a renewed effort after the 2014 attempt crashed and burned. 65% of Orleans Parish voters cast a ballot against the 2014 millage. So now the leaches are taking another swing.

The new strategy, in terms that a BS artist would use, combines the synergies of NORD, City Park, and Audubon Park. City Park remains unpopular after its monument debacle. Audubon Institure’s director Ron Forman makes roughly $700,000. His attempt to siphon more money from wallets in 2014 met wide opposition largely due to its independent success as well as its lack of transparency. That has not changed.

According to reports filed with the state, the Audubon Nature Institute raised almost $300,000 and spent $424,000 on the 2014 campaign. It’s too early to know what this year’s coalition will drag in big donations and spend out large sums to get more money from residents.

City Park has demonstrated its position on history and preservation. Beauregard’s theft remains inexcusable, and yet the park has many more failures. Check out the notorious “Dueling Oak” next to the New Orleans Museum of Art. It may be difficult to find as the park only has a pathetic, cheap little sign. The most egregious neglect by City Park is Spanish Fort which falls under the park’s ownership. The structure is older than the city of New Orleans. The fort dates from 1701 and stands in decay along Bayou St. John near Lake Pontchartrain. The Louisiana Landmarks Society placed City Park’s colonial fort at the top of its 2018 nine most endangered historic sites. Like the G.T. Beauregard statue, Spanish Fort is on the National Register of Historic Places, but City Park has proven it does not respect recognized historical landmarks. City Park clearly has a pattern of not caring for their invaluable assets

The current taxes are expiring millages that were designated for specific capital projects: maintenance of the Zoo and building the Aquarium. Both have long since been completed, yet these quasi-governmental entities want to keep the cash faucet flowing. This is not a renewal, it is a new tax equal to the old one. Instead of a reward at the end of paying down a home mortgage, approving this would be like starting a mortgage over for 20 more years.

The people behind-the-scenes want the public to believe that if residents give them more money, they will do right with it.  This measure faces opposition even if Clancy Dubos’ Fake News claims it does not. Critics of Audubon have asked, requested, and demanded more transparency. Audubon’s tactic for transparency was to circle the wagons with some feel-good allies.

City Park is a swamp. The staff and appointed board attempted to bury their heads in the sand for two years while former mayor Mitch Landrieu plotted to swipe a century old historic monument to Louisiana civil rights leader P. G. T. Beauregard. Throughout the entire two year period, the City Park board excluded any mention of Beauregard until May 23, 2017, after Mitch hoisted away the statue. The Park changed the name from “Christmas in the Oaks” to “Celebration in the Oaks.” And 14 years after Hurricane Katrina, they have not restored the event to its original drive-through status, a great New Orleans experience.

City Park top staff member Rob Deviney violated a Louisiana ethics law when he personally hired park contractors, and to this day he remains employed at the agency that wants public money. CEO Bob Becker refused to provide an investigative report, paid for with City Park funds, about employee abuse. City Park also had to pay a sexual harassment claim because of the same Rob Deviney (which, by the way, City Park refused to provide the information for and The Hayride received through other public information requests).

Rebecca Dietz, former mayor Mitch Landrieu’s city attorney who fought so hard to wreck the history of New Orleans, now works for the Audubon Institute. The Audubon Institute has the anti-monument transplant on staff. Dietz has not been a friend of New Orleans as she trumpeted completely unsubstantiated allegations in court in January 2016 that monument supporters made “death threats” to David Mahler. (Spoiler Alert: no evidence has ever been produced to support the death threats or car fire AFTER Mahler quit. And as a post script, Mahler’s attorney who originally floated the arson and death threat claims is Roy Maughan Jr. who was charged with three counts of forgery and felony theft in June 2016.)  The people who simply appreciate public sculptures or New Orleans history yet are labeled racists can look to Dietz for stirring those generalizations.

Dietz also, oddly, wrote a letter as the City Attorney to the City Park Improvement Association then president Steven Pettus which stated, “NOCPIA recognizes that the city will be moving forward with the removal and storage of the monument.” Dietz literally attributed words to City Park’s board as if the Park stated them. That’s what happens in a dictatorship. Maybe City Park let Mitch steal its gem because he dangled the carrot of tax millage park funds in front of them.

Voters who support the new tax should expect Audubon’s director to maintain his upper six-figure salary, City Park to neglect history and avoid preservation, and City Park’s board and employees to operate in the shadows concealing and excluding info from the public, not complying with Freedom of Information requests even as it operates with public funds. Expect streets to be decrepit, utility rate hikes, and teeth to rattle loose driving to the Zoo.

The 2019 campaign has not been as secretive as the 2014 campaign, but it still appears to have clandestine activity. Audubon is known for its lack of transparency and City Park is building that reputation as well. No mention of the millage appeared in City Park’s minutes until October 2018, despite CPIA Board Member Lawrence Katz saying on Facebook, “It took over two years of negotiating.”

New Orleanians actually have an opportunity to relieve some of their current tax burden. This is simple: Vote No on the new tax. If an individual feels passionately about supporting any or all of these entities, they can very easily donate money instead of forcing everyone else to swallow the cost. May 4th is a rare opportunity: people can vote themselves a tax decrease.

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