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Friday, August 28, 2009

Citizen Panel: NORD Needs Change

Posted By on Fri, Aug 28, 2009 at 9:41 PM

The New Orleans Recreation Citizens Advisory Committee today presented its plans to a City Council committee for revamping the New Orleans Recreation Department. The panel suggested a number of changes to improve NORD, including how the department is organized and doubling its funding. Both of these two proposals would require amending the city’s charter through a public vote.

Council members greeted the report with enthusiasm, and Councilmember –At-Large Arnie Fielkow said he’d like to see action on the proposal in the near future.

“My hope is that this Council will have the courage to put this issue up during this council term,” Fielkow said. “If not by the fall, then at least early next year.”

Members of the Council’s Youth and Recreation Committee listened as Rod West, CEO of Entergy New Orleans and a panel co-chair, explained how his group had examined a number of the nation’s top recreation departments. By studying these city park systems, which included nearby East Baton Rouge, the panel discerned a number of common elements: high quality programming; safe, clean and supervised facilities, long term planning for improvements and expansion and consistent private sector funding. As the report states, New Orleans can either be “satisfied with the status quo” for the city’s parks and playgrounds with many facilities in disrepair and closed, or create a world class recreation system and playgrounds, which will improve the city’s quality of life.

West pointed out that NORD’s current funding, between $4 million and $5 million per year, doesn’t keep pace with inflation and that results in fewer programs, lessening the impact NORD can have on the city’s children. West said the budget needs to be pumped up initially to $10 million annually (eventually reaching $20 million per year) through a millage increase. The panel calculated that in order to boost the millage from its current 1.09 mills to 3.59 mills, which is only slightly more than the Audubon Zoo and Aquarium’s 3.31 mills, would result in no yearly increase for homes $75,000 or less, $18.75 annually for homes valued at $150,000 and $43.75 for homes valued at $250,000.

The report also recommends a non-elected commission govern NORD, instead of the current scenario with the Mayor appointing NORD directors, which has resulted in 12 NORD directors in the past 31 years. Under the new plan, the 12-member commission would select the NORD director. The commission would be made up of nominees from the Mayor and the City Council, but final approval for the nominations would come from a vote of the five presidents of local universities: Tulane, Loyola, Southern, Dillard, Xavier and University of New Orleans. In order to make the commission independent from politics and election cycles, commissioners would serve five-year terms, which would be staggered so a newly-elected Mayor or City Council could not make wholesale changes to the commission.

Another problem with the city’s current recreation system, West said is that there are two departments — NORD and Parks and Parkways — involved in the running the city’s parks and playgrounds. The vast majority of the responsibility for parks and playgrounds is NORD’s, but maintenance — grass mowing and other landscaping services — is still under Parks and Parkways. West said this is impractical and that NORD should be in charge of maintaining its own fields and parks.

During a question and answer period, Councilmember James Carter probed the panel with questions regarding whether or not private funding meant the privatization of NORD, and how the Mayor’s Office might react to the report. West denied that private funding meant privatization because the funds would be raised by a foundation, not the commission. Besides, added West, privatization would mean giving NORD over to be managed by a nonprofit organization or a business, neither of which the advisory panel is proposing.

Carter also asked if transferring NORD’s governance to a commission instead of the Mayor, was another attempt to “peel away” at the Mayor’s power. Panel co-chair Roy Glapion Jr., son of former City Councilman Roy Glapion and brother of White House Social Secretary Desiree Glapion Rogers, answered.

“This has nothing to do with this administration, but it has to do with the kids,” Glapion said.

Carter then pressed a little further, asking if the panel wanted the Nagin administration’s support for the NORD alterations.

“Yes, but even without it, it’s in the best interest of the people,” replied Bobby Garon, a local attorney and NORD volunteer, the third panel co-chair.

Because of the uncertainties in the national and local economies, West said the group is advocating putting the changes — increased millage and NORD governance — up for a public vote in the fall of 2009. The later vote, West said, will give the economy a chance to recover more, and it won’t be tied to the Council and mayoral elections, which will take place next spring.

Fielkow concluded the meeting by agreeing with the panel that the two major proposals must be packaged together in a ballot because a change in governance means little without a larger NORD budget. Fielkow said he has long been embarrassed over the state of the city’s park and recreation facilities, and that the public needs to realize NORD’s challenges are not so much a result of Hurricane Katrina damage, but that the recreation department, which used to one of nation’s best, has had numerous problems for many years.

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