New Orleans residents will go to the polls on May 2 to vote on a proposed new library millage which, if adopted, would pump an additional $8.25 million annually into a system that officials say is underfunded and barely holding the line on current services thanks to a reserve fund that will run dry in 2016.
The library system’s 2015 operating budget is a shade more than $13 million, of which $3 million comes from the reserve pool. Almost $9.8 million of that budget pays for personnel. New Orleans Public Library (NOPL) already receives $9.5 million per year from an existing 3.14 millage, which replaced city funding in 1986. The proposed new 2.14 millage would be added to those funds, creating a pool of $17.75 million for library operations. Under the current millage, the owner of a home valued at $200,000 in New Orleans pays $40.70 a year in dedicated library taxes. If the new 2.5 millage passes, that amount would rise $31.01 for a total annual contribution of $71.71.
If the proposed tax of 2.5 mills fails to win approval, NOPL would need to close half of its 14 branches. Bernard Charbonnet, president of NOPL’s board of trustees, told LJ, “The only way we can keep them open is to pass this millage.”
The library would also have to slash operating hours by 35 percent, officials told Library Journal, in effect rolling back much of the restoration work accomplished in the nearly ten years since Hurricane Katrina.
“It is hyper-critical,” Karon Reese, president of Friends of the New Orleans Public Library, said of the vote, “in order for the library system to survive.”
Lining up for the library
If the proposal passes, the new tax revenue would not only stabilize NOPL’s overall funding, it would allow for a 30 percent increase in library hours, NOPL Executive Director Charles Brown said.
NOPL officials tout usage rates and a variety of successful programs as important reasons why more tax money is needed to sustain its momentum. In 2014, about 1,142,000 people visited the 14 libraries, and 3,108 library programs attracted more than 52,000 participants, according to figures supplied by NOPL.
“We have an overuse situation,” said Reese, noting that on weekends, it is not unusual for libraries in some New Orleans neighborhoods to find patrons lined up outside as they wait for the doors to open. “It sounds like I’m exaggerating but I’m not,” she said. “We have to kick people out of the library at closing hour.”
Charbonnet said NOPL faces a critical need to expand operating hours. Of the 14 branches, only three open their doors at all on Friday and not one branch currently stays open all seven days.
If the millage passes, the plan is to offer seven-day-a-week service at six branches and have nine libraries stay open six days.
“If we can get this millage, we can open when people need us,” Charbonnet said.
If the proposition passes, NOPL will also proceed with plans to reopen the Nora Navra Public Library in the city’s 7th Ward as the system’s 15th branch. Nora Navra was rendered uninhabitable in Katrina’s wake, but a replacement facility has been designed and rebuilding funds secured from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
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Katrina, of course, remains a defining event for NOPL, as it does for almost every municipal institution and resident remaining in New Orleans since the catastrophic storm flooded the city in August 2005.
NOPL was hit hard by the storm. Six branches were completely destroyed by the flooding and 90 percent of staff was laid off. Although five of those six destroyed branches reopened in smaller temporary facilities, system-wide services were reduced dramatically and spending was cut back sharply. Library millage was slashed 27 percent—from 4.32 to the current 3.14—as a break for taxpayers struggling themselves to get back on their feet. But with FTEs and services pared way back during this multiyear rebuilding phase, NOPL was able to bank about $12 million in the reserve fund.
An influx of federal money meant new—and bigger—libraries could be built. (See coverage of the LJ-led rebuilding of the Alvar Street branch.) In 2012, five large replacement libraries opened in New Orleans. Four were multi-story branches, creating an urgent need for more staff and other operational funds. With millage still at 3.14, NOPL made up the difference by using about $3 million a year from the reserve pool, Brown told LJ.
Jazzing up turnout
In January, the New Orleans City Council approved a special election to let voters decide on the new library tax. Reese’s Friends group has a presence on Facebook, which steers users to yesfornolalibraries.org. The group plans some public events to support passage of the millage, she added, but probably not until April. “There’s no organized opposition,” Reese said, “and I don’t really expect there to be. It’s hard to come out in opposition to libraries.”
However, there is one calendar conflict that has NOPL officials a bit concerned over turnout: May 2 is the second-to-last day of the annual New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, which runs ten days. In a city renowned for its parties, Jazz Fest is one of New Orleans’s biggest annual draws (Elton John is the headliner on May 2’s sprawling program of acts).
So NOPL officials are stressing the early voting period, which runs from April 18–25. Voter registration deadline is April 1.
Reese described her own plans for May 2. “If I don’t early vote,” she said, “I don’t go to Jazz Fest until about noon…so I’ll have plenty of time to get there and vote.”