James Gill: Tax plan makes credibility an endangered species

Orleans Parish taxpayers may feel it is not their fault that such species as the bongo and the okapi are in decline.

Admit it. If an okapi and a bongo walked into your neighborhood bar, you wouldn’t know which was which. FYI, the bongo is a striped African antelope. The okapi is cousin to the giraffe.

You might as well know about these critters, because, if you live in Orleans Parish, you have a stake in their survival. Not only that, but, come Saturday’s election, you will have the opportunity to make future generations pay for the preservation of exotic fauna too.

That may seem like a heavy responsibility for the residents of one little American city, especially as there is hardly any public oversight of how the Audubon Nature Institute spends the taxpayer’s money. But, shoot, it’s only asking for another $12 million a year to start with, and it’ll all be over in 50 years.

Fortunately, there’s plenty of money to spare in New Orleans right now, and everything is hunky dory at, say, the jail and the Police Department.

A portion of the increased tax revenue will be earmarked for ANI’s Species Survival Center in Algiers, where we are told the bongo and the okapi are among the animals to be bred. There could be baby unicorns running around there for all we know, because the public is not allowed in.

We know the ANI does a bang-up job though. Anyone who can afford the admission prices will be full of praise for the zoo, the aquarium and all its other attractions.

Taxpayers, who are generally loath to trust their elected officials with a dime, may well decide on Saturday to give the ANI, a private nonprofit, a multimillion-dollar free rein for half a century. That the proposal has not been laughed off the ballot is testimony to the high esteem in which the ANI and its hard-charging president, Ron Forman, are held. Chances of passage are boosted because Forman fans are well-organized and motivated and this is an off-election.

Forman says it was not timed to take advantage of the low turnout but to avoid being lost in the shuffle during the mayoral and councilmanic races. Regardless, a lot of people seem unaware that the proposition is on the ballot.

Forman came to prominence some 40 years ago when he took over the zoo, then a national disgrace for the pitiful conditions in which animals were housed, expanding and transforming it with the aid of a dedicated property tax into a model tourist attraction. The Forman empire has been expanding steadily ever since, notably when voters approved another property tax to build the aquarium in 1986. The pros and cons of that tax were the subject of much lively debate, which makes the silence this time all the eerier.

The zoo and aquarium taxes are set to expire in 2021 and 2022, but, although their purposes are long fulfilled, the ANI now proposes to reimpose, raise and extend them. We have to keep pumping money in, Forman advises, because other cities are beefing up their exhibits and museums and will try to steal our tourists away.

Forman may deserve his reputation as a miracle worker, but he is still a mere mortal and, if voters approve that tax Saturday, he will expire a long while before it does. Sure, we can trust him, but who’s going to vouch for the next guy?

In fact, trust in the ANI is taking a knock already, because it insists on characterizing Saturday’s proposition as a tax renewal, rather than an increase. The pretext for this legerdemain is that voters are being asked to combine the two taxes at the rates in force at the time of their adoption, a total of 4.2 mills. But the City Council rolled back those millages several years ago and they now stand at 3.31.

Taxpayers may not know the difference between a bongo and an okapi, but they sure can tell 4.2 from 3.31.

James Gill’s email address is jgill@theadvocate.com.