The cash-strapped New Orleans Public Library system will exhaust its reserves by the middle of 2016, putting it at a “crossroads” not seen since the mid-1980s and one that could lead to library closures unless adequate funding is established, Executive Director Charles Brown told the City Council on Monday.
Brown said the library system, which has been raiding its reserves to cover the gap between its operating needs and the revenue it generates from a small dedicated property tax, would need about $18 million a year to be properly funded.
The system has a proposed budget for 2015 of about $12 million, about a quarter of which will come from the last bit of the surplus it accumulated when many of the city’s libraries were closed after Hurricane Katrina.
The system, which operates 14 libraries, has been warning for the past few years that it was on track to run out of cash and has pleaded with the council for additional funding.
Library Board Chairman Bernard Charbonnet called Monday’s appearance before the panel the library’s “annual quest for support, relief and forbearance.”
“We are here with hat in hand asking for help. We have no bully pulpit to use. We have no sword to swing,” Charbonnet told the City Council during the third week of hearings on Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s proposed 2015 budget. “All we have is your benevolence.”
As in recent years, the mayor’s 2015 budget does not include an allocation for the library system from the city’s general fund.
The library system is funded primarily through a tax millage, which hasn’t increased in nearly 30 years and no longer brings in enough money to run the system.
The millage has generated $8.8 million in 2014, which the library has supplemented with $3.9 million from its reserves. The millage is expected to generate about $9.2 million in 2015, nearly all of which will go to covering personnel costs. The library plans to supplement that revenue with $3 million from its reserve.
“Ideally, we would like to stabilize and increase the funding for the New Orleans Public Library to accomplish a number of goals,” Brown said. “There’s just no way to comfortably absorb a reduction in funding of over 30 percent.”
The result would be dire, Brown told the council.
Without additional funding, he said, the library will have to cut staff starting in 2016. The “significant staff reductions” will result in a reduction of operating days or library closures, he said. The city’s libraries already are open only about half as many hours as those in East Baton Rouge Parish, Brown said. Some are closed altogether on Friday.
No increase in funding also would mean that the Nora Navra Library on St. Bernard Avenue in the 7th Ward, the only one of the system’s Katrina-damaged branches that hasn’t reopened, might have to remain closed.
The system has about $2.8 million in federal money available to repair Nora Navra, but reopening it in the library system’s current financial situation would be “dicey,” Brown said.
As in past years, council members expressed sympathy with the system’s plight.
“I suspect the council is unanimous that we want to make this happen, that it is very high-priority,” President Stacy Head said. “We just don’t know how to make it happen, and I think we’re going to have to come up with a global solution.”
One option, she said, is asking voters again to approve the recently rejected property tax proposition that would have helped Sheriff Marlin Gusman pay for a series of expensive court-mandated reforms at Orleans Parish Prison. The 10-year property tax would have generated about $9 million a year, would not have increased the existing millage rate and would have freed up city funds for other purposes, Head said.
She said another solution may be to ask the city’s private colleges and universities, which as nonprofits do not pay property taxes, to make payments in lieu of taxes that would go to the libraries.
Head said she was “most interested” in asking the Legislature to allow New Orleans to increase its cigarette and alcohol taxes.