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New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell attends an announcement of a $5 million philanthropic investment from JP Morgan chase at the University of New Orleans in New Orleans, La. Thursday, Nov. 12, 2020. The New Orleans Business Alliance and YouthForce NOLA will help develop a plan for the funds that are intended to support job training, and small businesses. (Photo by Max Becherer, NOLA.com, The Times-Picayune | The New Orleans Advocate)

Mayor LaToya Cantrell is asking New Orleans voters to approve three interrelated millages on Dec. 5 that wouldn’t increase residents’ total tax bills, but would reallocate the proceeds for 20 years.

The first would increase a combined streets and capital projects tax and put the money toward streets, drainage, public facilities, vehicles and maintenance. The second would substantially reduce a library millage and divert some of the reduced sum for early childhood education. The third would boost a housing tax and put the proceeds toward housing and economic development.

There’s a lot to like here, including the new investment in early childhood education, which would draw down a state match and shrink the long waiting list for parents of pre-K students who can’t afford private child care. On balance, though, the package raises concerns too serious for us to recommend passage.

One is over the 1.164 mills for economic development, an important goal but one where the return on investment is not always certain. What really gives us pause, though, is the steep cost borne by the city’s treasured libraries, which would face a 40% cut in operating funds.

Voters overwhelmingly approve new tax for New Orleans Public Library

Libraries promote literacy, provide community gathering spots and help bridge the city’s deep digital divide, which has never been more important than during the coronavirus pandemic. In 2015, voters showed their love by backing a second, 25-year millage, which allowed the system to keep all branches open and expand hours. As it stands now, per capita operating expenditures in New Orleans are much lower than in Baton Rouge or Shreveport.

Cantrell insists the system can take the hit. She points to surpluses since the 2015 tax passed, argues that new management can find efficiencies without reducing services, and notes that other departments are facing cuts due to the pandemic.

We support rightsizing, yet the idea that such a severe drop in revenue wouldn’t impact services strains credulity. That the system has built up a reserve is commendable, but not good enough reason to raid it. The mayor does have a record of backing libraries, but as the Bureau of Governmental Research noted, voters don’t have enough information to be assured that the system has a plan to get through 20 years without harm.

“No” votes wouldn’t be the final word. The expiring millages don’t roll off for another year, so the city would have time to revamp its proposal and go before voters again. We think there’s a workable way to meet these needs without asking libraries to shoulder the full price.

Early voting begins today.

The Times-Picayune | The New Orleans Advocate also recommends these candidates in runoff elections: 

  • Orleans Parish District Attorney: Keva Landrum
  • Public Service Commission District 1: Eric Skrmetta
  • Orleans Parish School Board: Ethan Ashley (District 2), J.C. Romero (District 4), Katherine Baudouin (District 5), Carlos Zervigon (District 6), Nolan Marshall Jr. (District 7)

This editorial has been updated to correct the term of the library millage approved in 2015.