November 17, 2017

New Orleans Votes to Reinvest in Libraries

New_Orleans_Public_Library-LogoNew Orleans voters went to the polls on May 2 and showed their love for their library system, approving a raise in property taxes that will add up to $8.2 million a year for the New Orleans Public Library (NOPL). A whopping 75 percent of voters approved—a margin of more than 9,000 votes. Starting in January 2016, the 25-year, 2.5-mill property tax increase will allow some branches to extend operating hours to seven days a week, and will help rebuild the 7th Ward’s Nora Navra Library, damaged in Hurricane Katrina.

The current 3.14-mill, $8.7 million tax, which will expire at the end of 2021, would have left NOPL struggling to close a $3 million budget gap. The library supported itself for the past three years with funds from a reserve account that accumulated while many branches were closed after Hurricane Katrina. These reserves, however, which have made up about a quarter of the system’s budget—just over $13 million in 2015—would have been exhausted by mid-2016. The resulting shortfall would have resulted in cut hours and closings of up to half of NOPL’s 14 branches, including five restored branches that opened in the past three years.

The special election was approved in January. NOPL officials made it a point to emphasize the early voting period, from April 18–25, so voter turnout would not be hampered by the annual New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, which was held from April 25–May 3. Some 4,000 votes out of nearly 17,000 were tallied during early voting, including absentee ballots.

STRATEGIC SUPPORT

Much of the new property tax’s success had to do with the very vocal support of New Orleans elected officials, including Mayor Mitch Landrieu. In a statement after the election, Landrieu said, “The library system provides value and quality of life to all New Orleans residents.… As we approach our city’s 300th anniversary, our libraries will not only reinforce our intellectual and cultural heritage, but it will also help strengthen our commitment to equal opportunity and shared prosperity for all New Orleanians.”

NOPL also found an ally in John Chrastka, founder and executive director of library political action committee EveryLibrary (and a 2014 LJ Mover & Shaker). The nonprofit helps libraries strengthen their positions in civic campaigns through a combination of fundraising and strategy, racking up far more wins than losses in its two years of operation. Brown had contacted Chrastka after EveryLibrary had successfully helped Santa Clara County District Library, CA, win an annual $6.2 million parcel tax in 2013. “He heard about our work and reached out,” Chrastka told LJ.

For over a year, EveryLibrary and NOPL collaborated on the campaign. “We worked with senior staff and with the board of trustees for the library…over the course of 2014 to help them shape the plan in a way that you could carry to the voters,” Chrastka said. “We also provided technical assistance to the Vote Yes committee…as well.”

Chrastka also attributed the campaign’s success to the involvement of a strong citizens’ committee, particularly Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 21LA, which represents Louisiana’s union library employees. “It was all folks who are library employees and their brothers and sisters in the union,” he told LJ, “getting out and doing the walking, the door knocking, and the yard signs.”

VOTE OF CONFIDENCE

Although support for the special election was widespread, the Bureau of Governmental Research (BGR), a private nonprofit public policy research organization serving the New Orleans metropolitan area, was more critical, citing both the lack of a detailed strategic plan for the money and a long-term vision for NOPL from library director Charles Brown. BGR had raised concerns about discrepancies in the library’s projected numbers, and recommended that city leaders develop a more detailed plan and wait to propose the increase until November elections. However, maintained Chrastka, “The contingency plan was very clearly laid out by the staff and the board of trustees.”

Despite such objections, voters came out overwhelmingly in favor of the plan. “Saturday’s election was a tremendous victory for NOPL and the city it serves,” Brown said in a statement. “This vote of confidence speaks volumes about the city’s continuing resurgence and the hard work and tireless dedication of the Library’s staff and its many supporters in the community.”

“In New Orleans, libraries have served as anchors of our communities for generations,” stated Landrieu. “I am proud that the voters overwhelmingly showed their support for our public library system. Now our libraries will be open more days with longer hours and will be able to invest more in permanent collections, innovative programs, and state-of-the-art technology.”

Overall, Chrastka told LJ, “It was a well laid out, well thought out, and responsible plan. It was arrived at in an open and transparently consultative process across the city of New Orleans.” Aside from the win, he added, one reason that he and EveryLibrary found the election results so satisfying was that “this actually completes the reconstruction, post-Katrina, for the New Orleans Public Library. My whole board was there back at the 2006 [American Library Association Annual Conference], when we were out there wearing hazmat suits helping to clean out the mold. This is part two of that, and…to us it was an honor to be able to work on that campaign to help provide that stability.”

Lisa Peet About Lisa Peet

Lisa Peet is Associate Editor, News for Library Journal.

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