In voting down last Saturday’s three-part property tax extension proposed by Mayor LaToya Cantrell that would have extended but changed funding for city libraries for 20 years, New Orleans voters didn’t swear off support of the cherished neighborhood institutions. The “no” vote on Proposition 2, as well as the two companion questions, was really a rallying cry to protect them.
Baton Rouge leaders should also take note of Cantrell’s debacle at the polls.
The Cantrell administration proposed a 40% cut in the system’s funding if voters approved the package, which would have renewed a millage that expires a year from now, at a significantly lower rate. The mayor proposed reallocating some of the money that now goes to libraries for worthy goals, early childhood education, infrastructure and maintenance, housing and economic development.
Voters said that they want libraries funded, too.
We urge Cantrell not to let the library tax expire, which would result in the system losing half its public funding in 2022.
Her administration should go back to the drawing board and come up with a proposal that wouldn’t decimate libraries. That’s what the opposition essentially asked for, and the mayor should listen.
We understand that these are tough times, and that the city has had to make deep cuts to account for revenue losses caused by the coronavirus pandemic and the resulting severe drop in tourism. The budget for the upcoming year includes furloughs for employees and other difficult cuts.
But crises force governments to prioritize, and to clearly communicate the painful choices they make. Here Cantrell fell short, in insisting that the reduced funding wouldn’t impact services over two decades, and that a surplus in recent years, which library backers attribute to a revenue bump after a different millage passed in 2015 but before the system started spending the new money, meant that libraries were in effect overfunded.
A lot of voters didn’t find the mayor’s position credible.
We believe that voters were saying that libraries play a vital role in promoting literacy, closing the digital divide, and providing a wide range of services for children and adults throughout any community, regardless of their means.
We hope that officials in Baton Rouge pay attention to Cantrell’s defeat. The capital city’s libraries are funded, per person, far higher than those in New Orleans. The libraries are a point of pride in Baton Rouge.
From time to time, officials — like Cantrell, desperate for new revenues for other priorities — talk about raiding the library millages for money.
That is the wrong approach. Library funding is an important metric of a community’s commitment to its future. As the New Orleans result showed, you don’t mess with libraries without prompting a backlash.