Welcome to a tale of two cities. In Baton Rouge, the public library system is thriving. In New Orleans, officials might have to close branches because money is in short supply.
The sorry financial condition of the New Orleans Public Library system should be a cause of embarrassment not only to New Orleans but the whole state.
A city that prides itself as a center of culture shouldn’t have a library system that’s facing the possibility of closing branches. That’s bad for residents and a terrible message to send the rest of the world.
Louisiana has struggled with high rates of illiteracy for decades. At a time when we desperately need to widen the community of readers in our state, New Orleans library officials are considering a radical reduction of services.
The system’s executive director, Charles Brown, recently told the New Orleans City Council that the library is facing a crisis unless it gets financial help.
The library system is funded primarily through a dedicated 3.1-mill tax that hasn’t increased in nearly three decades. It no longer brings in nearly enough to keep the library system afloat. The millage generated $8.8 million in 2014 and is expected to generate about $9.2 million in 2015, nearly all of which will go to cover personnel costs. The library has been dipping into reserves to make ends meet, but those reserves are thinning out. Without additional funding, Brown said, the library will have to cut staff starting in 2016.
New Orleans residents don’t have to look far to find a better model for operating their public libraries. In Baton Rouge, a community with a long history of skepticism about taxes, voters have nevertheless supported a 11.1-mill property millage to fund libraries. (The millage was rolled back to 10.78 mills in 2012.)
The EBR Library’s budget recorded revenues of nearly $40 million this year, and the proceeds fund all of the library’s expenses, including buildings, books, bookmobiles and staff. All the buildings are fully paid for, constructed on a pay-as-you-go basis. A gorgeous new Main Library opened this year, serving 13 other branches. A multiyear construction program has replaced old, outdated branch buildings with newer, expanded facilities. All branches, as well as the Main Library, are open seven days a week.
Fiscally conservative Baton Rougeans have supported their library, we assume, because they like the facilities and service their tax money has funded. Their experience suggests what’s possible in other cities.
We hope that Brown’s message to the New Orleans City Council adds urgency to the cause of finding a long-term solution to the New Orleans Public Library’s budget woes. With libraries, as with anything else, you tend to get what you pay for.