New Orleans voters will decide Saturday whether to extend a lifeline to a cash-strapped New Orleans Public Library system hoping to stave off closures and even expand its offerings.
On the ballot is a request for a 25-year, 2.5-mill tax that would raise a projected $8.25 million a year for the library system — money that city and library officials say is necessary for the system to continue operating its 14 branches and to reopen one that has been closed for nearly 10 years.
“We are a city where 40 percent of households, it’s estimated, don’t have a computer or access to the Internet,” New Orleans Public Library Executive Director Charles Brown said. “The library is a vital link for those individuals to a world where everyone is technology-dependent — from applying for a job to doing homework.”
If the millage passes, the system would have enough money to extend the hours and days of operation at all its branches. It also could add books, e-books, music and videos to its collection. The tax increase also would support additional outreach efforts and services, like a mobile library and computer classes, Brown said.
If the measure fails, none of those goals would be reached, and half of the branches might have to be shut down, he said.
The proposed tax would be in addition to the 3.14 mills now dedicated to the library. That tax runs through 2021.
The existing millage provides about $9.5 million to the library system each year. For the past several years, that has been about $3 million less than the amount the library needs to operate at its current level. Worse, it’s only about half of the $18 million a year needed to fund the system properly, Brown said.
What the millage hasn’t covered has been pulled from the library’s reserves every year since 2012. The last bit of that surplus, accumulated when many of the city’s libraries were closed after Hurricane Katrina, will be exhausted by mid-2016, officials have said.
The library budget is about $13 million for 2015. About $9.5 million of that will be funded by the existing millage. Another $530,000 will come from the general fund, state grants, donations, fines and fees. The balance, about $3 million, will be pulled from the reserve account. The City Council chipped in $200,000 from the general fund after hearing about the library’s plight.
The local library system’s per capita funding this year, from the millage and other regular sources, is $24.54, according to the library. That compares with $49.49 in Jefferson Parish, $39.05 in St. Tammany Parish and $84.19 in East Baton Rouge Parish, the library said.
With its surplus expected to be wiped out by mid-2016 and with too little money to operate adequately, the library system is at a crossroads, Brown said.
When it was created many decades ago, the library was funded by the city’s general fund. The city began reducing its contribution to the system about 30 years ago after voters approved a specially dedicated 4-mill tax, later increased to 4.32 mills, for libraries. That tax was reduced to 3.14 mills after Katrina.
Six of the system’s 13 locations were destroyed following the storm. Twelve of those branches are now open, and two new ones have been added, for a total of 14 active branches. The Nora Navra branch on St. Bernard Avenue in the 7th Ward remains closed. It would reopen if the new tax is approved.
The library also would increase its hours of operation and stay open seven days a week at the six largest branches and six days a week at the others. With the exception of the Milton H. Latter Memorial Library on St. Charles Avenue, which is open seven days a week, and the Martin Luther King Library in the Lower 9th Ward, which is open Monday through Friday, all of the libraries are closed on Fridays and Sundays. Most close at 7 p.m. during the week.
The system would have to reduce those already skimpy hours of operation by 35 percent if the tax proposal fails. It also would close seven of the 14 libraries and drop plans to reopen Nora Navra. Funding for programs and for the library’s collection also would decline.
Despite the dire consequences, the library system has a tall task in convincing voters to support the tax increase. For a portion of the population, ever-present cellphones and electronic tablets, with book-reading applications and Internet access, have replaced libraries as a source of information. Beyond that, it can prove difficult to get voters to agree to a property tax hike, no matter what cause it would support.
According to the library, the proposed tax hike amounts to an additional monthly cost of about $4.57 for a home valued at $300,000, assuming a homestead exemption. That works out to $54.81 a year. Combined with the current library tax, those amounts are $10.57 a month and $126.75 a year.
Mayor Mitch Landrieu and the City Council have thrown their full support behind the tax request.
The council voted 7-0 in January to put the measure on the ballot for Saturday’s election.
Landrieu described the millage as “critical to the future” of the city.
“The positive effects of the public library are not limited just to those who use its resources,” he said. “The library system provides value and quality of life to all New Orleans residents by aiding our school system and reducing the digital divide among the underprivileged, the young and the elderly. And as we approach our 300th anniversary, supporting libraries will reinforce our intellectual and cultural heritage and strengthen our commitment to equal opportunity and shared prosperity for all New Orleanians.”
But the measure is not without opposition. The Bureau of Governmental Research is against the request. The nonpartisan watchdog group said the library should not ask voters for more revenue without first providing a “well-conceived strategic plan, based on sound numbers.” It said the library and the city are responsible for the deficit because they reopened branches and added libraries to the system after Katrina without having a plan for how the operations would be supported in the long term.
BGR said the library should create that plan and then go back to voters with a millage request in 2016.
Landrieu and Brown defended the library’s plan for the money.
“I think unfortunately they were wrong and they weren’t in possession of or educated sufficiently enough about the detailed plan that we have for spending that money,” Landrieu said of BGR’s position. “Every dollar will be accounted for; there is a great need for it.”