PLEASE JOIN PARKS FOR ALL FOR A FORUM ON
Parks, Recreation, and Open Space Planning:
International Best Practices and their Application
to New Orleans
Monday, March 25, 2019
Propeller ~ 4035 Washington Avenue
Kurt Culbertson, PhD, FASLA, FAICP, will offer perspectives
gained through 40 years of experience in the planning
and design of park and recreation systems and
reflections on the application of these lessons
to the needs of New Orleans.
FREE AND OPEN TO THE PUBLIC
The City of New Orleans and the New Orleans City Council have approved language for a millage (property tax) to present to voters in May 2019. The proposed millage is to replace the millages currently collected on behalf of the New Orleans Recreation Development Commission (NORD), Parks & Parkways, and the Audubon Commission. If voters approve, these three entities will continue to receive funds generated by the combined millage; in addition, New Orleans City Park, which is a state agency, will become a first-time recipient of the City's public funds.
The proposal would adjust the millage rates for Audubon Commission, the New Orleans Recreation Development Commission (NORDC) and Parks and Parkways in part to allow City Park to finally receive dedicated funding. Audubon’s proposed adjusted millage would be reduced to 1.95 mills ($6.59 million) from 3.31 mills ($10.92 million); NORDC adjusted millage would be increased to 1.95 mills ($6.59 million) from 1.5 mills ($4.95 million); and Parks and Parkways’ millage would be increased to 1.8 mills (or $6.08 million). This adjustment would allow City Park to have a millage of .61 mill (nearly $2.06 million).
Parks For All (PFA) believes that parks and recreation, a vital public service, must have public dollars to thrive. In the absence of public support, parks management has no choice but to require people to “pay to play.” PFA is committed to no loss of green space and limiting commercial development of our precious public parks. We must ensure that neighborhood parks are well cared for and that large regional parks are not lost to over-development. The proposed parks millage will provide a modest percentage of the total operating budgets of the receiving entities, but it provides critical minimum funding, particularly in the case of Parks & Parkways and NORD.
In brief, here’s why:
New Orleans parks are underfunded across the board. The new millage will roll over soon-expiring millages currently received by Audubon, NORD, and Parks and Parkways. In other words, no additional taxes are being levied. The new millage structure guarantees that, for the first time, funds will be shared by the four major organizations – with the addition of City Park – that manage the City’s park-and-recreation facilities.
Accompanying the millage proposal is a unique Cooperative Endeavor Agreement between the City and the four millage recipients that requires the millage recipients to coordinate their ongoing management responsibilities. The combination of the millage with the Cooperative Endeavor Agreement initiates general funding and coordinated management of the City’s principal parklands for the first time in the City’s history — a major step forward.
The CEA also requires a professionally produced citywide parks-and-recreation master plan through which we citizens will define our vision and fundamental mandates for greenspace citywide in the future. The responsibility for the master plan belongs to the Mayor. The plan will be funded out of the millage proceeds and will be facilitated by a third party with national park planning experience. Parks For All looks forward to vigorously monitoring the development and execution of the greenspace master plan.
While we did not achieve all of our advocacy goals, we believe that these accomplishments are substantial. The Parks For All Board voted on February 12, 2019 to support the millage proposal.
We are well aware that we have settled on a compromise, but we think that a compromise is better than no shared millage, no coordination and no greenspace master plan.
Here are seven reasons why this millage proposition is NOT a panacea:
1. Insufficient funding. The millage does not settle the issue of sufficient funding for all our parks across the City.
2. Obscure financial statements. Park finances are opaque. Parks For All expects the master plan to identify sources and uses of funds for all park operations in clear templates published on an ongoing basis. We need this information to compare ourselves to other cities our size and to set benchmarks for future expenditures.
3. Public trust. The millage also does not resolve citizen mistrust of park management entities. One cause of mistrust, among others, is “Development by Surprise,” where projects are sprung on an uninformed public with a quick execution deadline worked out in a backroom. These ploys are invariably executed for the benefit of tourists or special-interests groups and end up creating paywalls that exclude free and open access to formerly public greenspace.
4. Greenspace still up for grabs. We still have no assurance that park managers will cease their insistence on monetizing our greenspaces by increasing commercialization. We expect a full accounting of revenue-producing operations to determine whether such commercial endeavors are worth the sacrifice of reduced accessibility that they entail. We do not simply demand no more commercialization – there is far too much already. We want to ensure that public dollars are funding greenspace preservation and meeting needs that most people care about.
5. A dominion of fiefdoms. Parks For All seeks synergy and ultimately consolidation among park-and-recreation management entities. If we can eradicate the waste of public and private resources caused by duplicative operations, we will have more money to support parks and better services for park users.
6. Tourists shouldn’t trump residents. Parks For All places highest priority on the use and enjoyment of our community’s parks by residents. If our residents are happy, our tourists will be. We must and will be vigilant in our opposition to further attempts to develop public property with local tax revenues for the convenience of visitors.
7. Protecting our heritage. We should respect and preserve the design legacy of our parks. New projects in the heart of our historic greenspaces often ignore aesthetic and practical elements that were vital to the beauty and resiliency of the space. Our parks have lessons to teach us about our community’s social and political history. Like our city’s architectural heritage, they are integral to our city’s unique character.
As a result of Parks For All’s work with the Mayor’s representatives and members of City Council, the City Administration added the following General Obligations to the Cooperative Endeavor Agreement (“CEA”) that will govern coordination between the four millage recipients (NORD, Parks and Parkways, Audubon, and City Park), which will form an inter-agency parks council:
1. The preparation of a “city-wide parks, green/open space, and recreation master plan to be updated every ten years and facilitated by a qualified third party with national park experience.”
2. The contribution by the millage recipients of “reasonable funding [along with] reasonable best efforts to pursue philanthropic support, in coordination with the Executive Office of the Mayor, for the creation of the citywide parks and recreation master plan….”
The first draft of the CEA provided for two community meetings per year to discuss the millage recipients’ coordination efforts. This provision subsequently was strengthened by the requirement that each party to the agreements “shall have an executive-level representative present at said community meetings to receive input and recommendations from the community ….”
In addition, the millage recipients are obligated to submit an annual report by April 1st each year to the Mayor and City Council “describing achievements, coordination efforts, development of the above-identified plans and their implementation, progress, and a full accounting of how Proposition funds generated by the millage were expended in the prior year.” The italicized phrase was also added to the final CEA and provides assurance that the Mayor’s Office is taking on a strong oversight role to ensure that the objectives of the parks-and-recreation master plan are being pursued.
Finally, we expect that the master plan will contain a clear template of the elements necessary to maintain our park system to high-quality standards and that these standards will be used to assess the ongoing condition of all the City’s greenspaces and recreation grounds.
These changes to the CEA, now approved by City Council, achieve much of what Parks For All set out to accomplish with our amendment package. We feel that the revised CEA materially enhances the purpose of a shared millage, namely, to develop a better planned, more equitable, city-wide parks-and-recreation system, to which the four millage recipients will be held accountable.
The following three Parks For All recommendations were not included in the CEA. Nonetheless, we feel that two of the three were addressed sufficiently to justify our organization’s overall support of the millage proposition:
1. A dedicated account in the City’s financial system to hold 2% of the millage proceeds
We proposed that a dedicated City account would collect 2.0% of the millage funds received on an annual basis for the purpose, initially, to create a Municipal Parks and Recreation Strategic Master Plan and, subsequently, to fund assessment of progress on the plan every two years.
PFA was determined to make sure that there would be guaranteed funding for the master plan and for periodic assessments of the quality of our parks and recreation facilities to ensure that plan is carried out. Any accumulated funds not needed for the plan and assessments would be invested in citywide master plan initiatives.
Even though no set percentage will be put aside, the CEA requires that the millage proceeds, which may but are not required to be supported by philanthropic contributions, will fund “a city-wide parks, green/open space, and recreation master plan to be updated every ten years and facilitated by a qualified third party with national park planning experience.”
Furthermore, Article IV of the CEA, entitled “Funding,” provides that funding for the obligations imposed by the CEA shall come from the millage proceeds.
There is no stated commitment for funding regular assessments to measure progress against the master plan. The Mayor’s representatives argued that this additional feature was an inappropriate requirement within the context of the millage-related CEA, but agreed with Parks For All that the development of an assessment tool should and will be included in the parks-and-recreation master plan.
Concluding Parks For All position:
Professional master planning created by an unaffiliated third party with solid credentials, experience on a national scale and commitment to broad citizen engagement in the process is neither free nor inexpensive. Parks For All considers that the inclusion in the CEA of funding for this process is an enormous success.
Parks For All is committed to a biennial report card mechanism as a crucial part of the process to ensure that the master plan objectives are vigorously pursued in the years ahead. We will hold the Mayor’s office to its commitment that the master plan will contain a clear template of the elements necessary to maintain our parks and recreation facilities to high-quality standards. Parks For All will work hard to ensure that these standards will be used to assess the ongoing condition of all of our City’s parks.
2. Formation of a Parks and Recreation Steering Advisory Council:
We proposed that the City’s Chief Administrative Office form a Parks and Recreation Steering Advisory Council (“PRSAC”), which would include in its membership representatives of the City's Chief Administrative Office, City Planning Commission, City Council, Millage Recipients, at least three local parks-and-recreation advocacy organizations, and LSU’s Robert Reich School of Landscape Architecture, as well as insure public participation through an open-meeting process.
By this measure Parks For All sought both to oversee expenditures in the proposed Designated Account and to provide guidance and oversight to the parks Interagency Working Group in carrying out the aims of the parks-and-recreation master plan.
Finally, we wanted to ensure that all of our parks management organizations could be “at the table.” The four millage recipients represent fewer than half of the organizations managing parks and recreation properties in our City. There are TEN parks management organizations in Orleans Parish alone. Significant public acreage is also managed by the French Market Corporation, the Downtown Development District, the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority-East, the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority-West, the Non-Flood Protection Asset Management Authority, and the federal Fish and Wildlife Service.
The Mayor’s office responded to this amendment proposal with the argument that it did not see any value in adding yet another advisory committee to the hundreds that already exist. Moreover, oversight of a separate account for remitted millage proceeds was a moot point.
Parks For All continues to feel that an oversight board has merit. With all that the Mayor and her staff have to do, is it reasonable to think that they can oversee the progress of this new parks coordination effort with the constant care of a council of professionals and informed citizens?
Concluding Parks For All position:
Even though we did not manage to get any of the City’s six other parks jurisdictions nor park advocates to the table in the coordination and oversight process, we believe that the parks master plan, which does cover all the greenspace and recreational areas in the City, can provide a first step towards the ultimate goal of coordinating all ten of the separate jurisdictions that manage our parks, as well as giving the citizens a stronger voice in the improvement of the park-and-recreation system. Parks For All will continue to advocate for the achievement of these goals.
3. No Further Loss of Green Space
Because the new millage streams are available for the recipients’ operating purposes, Parks For All wanted to include in the CEA a clause that would hold the parties accountable to the no-loss-of-greenspace objective mandated and established through the recent amendment process to update the City’s Master Plan, a new stipulation which Parks For All advocated for and achieved. We wanted explicit commitment by the parties that they would prevent further conversion of our greenspace into commercial uses that have the effect of not only reducing open space but also limiting public-park access to paying customers.
Concluding Parks For All position:
Parks For All is staunchly committed to no loss of green space and limiting commercial development of our precious greenspaces. We must ensure that neighborhood parks are well cared for and that large regional parks are not marred or lost to over-development. While the no-loss-of-greenspace clause was not included in the millage CEA, it is now incorporated in the City Master Plan, which supersedes all other plans. Parks For All will continue to advocate energetically against commercial encroachments on public green space.
CITYWIDE PARKS AND RECREATION PROPOSITION (In Lieu Millage)
In lieu of 3.00 mills currently levied for Parkway and Parks Commission and New Orleans Recreation Department and 0.32 mills and 2.99 mills levied for Audubon Commission ("Prior Taxes"), shall the City of New Orleans ("City") be authorized to levy a special tax of 6.31 mills ("Tax") for twenty years, January 1, 2021 - December 31, 2040 ( estimated at $22,150,000 in the first year) with the proceeds of the Tax dedicated first to payment of debt service obligations secured by the Prior Taxes then to improving park safety and accessibility, capturing stormwater to reduce flooding, repairing and upgrading playgrounds and recreation centers, conserving natural areas, and constructing, improving, maintaining, and operating parks and recreational and wildlife conservation facilities in the City, except that a portion of collections shall be remitted to certain state and statewide retirement systems as required by law, allocated pro-rata as follows: 1.95 mills to New Orleans Recreation Development Commission; 1.80 mills to New Orleans Department of Parks and Parkways; 0.61 mills to City Park Improvement Association; and 1.95 mills to Audubon Commission, supplemental to and not in lieu of City general fund appropriations budgeted for 2020, with all expenditures subject to public disclosure through annual audits?
We will welcome your support of Parks For All's efforts to make New Orleans a Great Parks City. Here is how you can help: