By 2016, the New Orleans Public Library (NOPL) officially will be in the red.
What that means for the six branches that were rebuilt after Hurricane Katrina has yet to be determined — but if voters approve a 2.5 mill property tax increase in the May 2 election, the library not only could get the funding it needs to stay operational, but also to rebuild the Nora Navra branch in the 7th Ward, the final branch that remains shuttered nearly 10 years after the levee failures. Library officials also would like to increase hours of operation from six days a week to seven.
This isn't the first time the library has found itself in dire straits. In 1986, when the city was struggling to fund its library system, says NOPL Executive Director Charles Brown, it threatened to close all branches, leaving just the main library on Loyola Avenue open.
"Two things came about to prevent that," Brown says. "The business community came forward to protect the libraries until a dedicated millage could be designed and put on the ballot for voters to approve." That millage, set at four mills, passed with a wide majority. At some point between 1986 and 2005, the millage was rolled forward to 4.32 mills.
After Hurricane Katrina and the levee failures in 2005, homeowners were struggling, so the city rolled back millages to encourage people to return to New Orleans. The library millage was rolled back to 3.14 mills — where it is today. The proposed millage increase would cost homeowners without exemptions an additional $25 for every $100,000 of property value.
The vote seems like an easy sell; who doesn't appreciate libraries? Brown points to the educational and politically neutral environment that branches across the city give to New Orleans youth: providing educational and entertainment materials; serving as points of Internet access in an underwired city; and creating community programming that provides an alternative to crime and a lack of adult supervision.
But the Bureau of Governmental Research (BGR), a private, nonprofit and non-affiliated research organization in New Orleans, issued a report last month asking the NOPL to go back to the drawing board. Janet Howard, president and CEO of BGR, says the library has a plan for how it's going to spend the money, but it doesn't have a stra- tegic long-term plan for its operations.
Howard says that kind of strategic plan should have predated the rebuilding of the library system post-Katrina. "When we met with (the library), we were told ... that such a plan was not developed and the library intended to develop such a plan after they got more money," Howard says. "And to us, that's a backwards process. What we've said is, 'Look, there should be this kind of plan if you're going out to voters, asking them for more money. Develop one and come back in the fall.'"
The NOPL could come back and ask for a millage in the November election, but Orleans Parish Tax Assessor Erroll Williams says that millage increases are almost always easier to win when it's an off-election (like May 2) without much else on the ballot, unlike the November election, which will include the governor's race.
"People are generally averse to increases in taxes," Williams says. "The question is how passionate they are when it comes to funding certain programs or services of government. In the case that this is an off-election, a lot of organizations try to pass theirs when there's low voter turnout. This is an opportunity for them to pass it, provided that the voters who go to the polls understand it."
Last year, Orleans voters rejected a millage increase for the Audubon Nature Institute, with 65 percent of voters turning thumbs-down. But that situation was different on a number of levels — unlike the library, Audubon is a private entity and charges admission to its attractions, while the vast majority of NOPL services are free to the public. And the Audubon millage wasn't set to expire for seven years. NOPL says its millage needs are immediate.
"I think any impression that voters would have no idea how the funds will be spent is not true. We have clearly articulated how the funding will be spent." — New Orleans Public Library Executive Director Charles Brown
Williams speculates the NOPL's timing was intentional, saying that if the millage was on the November ballot, "it might not have passed. They've probably known they've had this budget problem for some time."
Brown says the BGR is wrong. "I have no criticism of the BGR, I simply disagree with their finding," he says. "I think any impression that voters would have no idea how the funds will be spent is not true. We have clearly articulated how the funding will be spent."
In a later email, Brown said, "The library has a detailed spending plan, but not a strategic plan at this point," adding "any new funding will be used for vetted, widely accepted purposes." As to spending specifics, he said, "The question of the strategic plan is a priority for the future; however, there are simply too many front-line operational considerations that must be addressed first."
With less money coming in, Brown says the library simultaneously has had to spend more money to operate its facilities and rebuild after the storm. "Six of our libraries were destroyed by Katrina," he says. "Since that time, we have rebuilt — largely with outside funding — five of the six libraries. They have been rebuilt, and they're larger facilities and more expensive to operate."
Immediately after the storm, the library wasn't operating full throttle, so it was able to build up a solid reserve fund. "Its staff was reduced from over 200 to 19," Brown says. "So the dedicated millage continued to generate revenue that came into the library's property. By 2011, those reserves had built up to almost $12 million." That reserve fund has been tapped by $3 million a year, and will run out in 2016.
To help sell the millage, NOPL has employed The Ehrhardt Group, a local public relations firm, and issued some convincing numbers to make the case that the NOPL is underfunded.
New Orleans gets $24.54 in library funds per capita, for instance — much lower than other cities with high poverty rates (Detroit gets $41.30 per capita; Baltimore, $61.78; East Baton Rouge, $84.19). Even with that lower total, NOPL says, it's gotten results. According to NOPL statistics, more than 1.14 million people visited NOPL branches in 2014; 1.1 million items were checked out; and 373,000 people used library computers.
The library also has continued several literacy programs, inlcuding Turn the Page (for students), Every Child Ready to Read (a preschool literacy program) and the regular summer reading program, which had more than 6,000 registrants in 2014. Before the storm, NOPL had few digital offerings; it now has 25,000 e-books and audio books for download and 70 digital magazines. It also launched a new, modernized website last week. All these things, library officials say, are important as New Orleans positions itself as a modern, technologically forward city.
Howard says BGR isn't against an increase in library funding per se. "The fact that something is a good cause is not enough to say to voters," she says. "You have to have a system that's properly executed and you've got to have the planning. Do those things and come back."
BGR plans to look at this and other future taxes as a whole, "because we have all these individual groups that go out and ask (for money)," Howard says. "The sheriff goes out and asks for money, the city can go out and ask for money, the levees can go out and ask for money — but there's no coordination so that you come up with a concept of 'What are the community's top priorities?'" Howard says BGR will issue another report looking at not only property taxes, but also sales taxes and hotel and motel taxes to see where that money is going across Orleans Parish. That way, voters can decide whether that revenue is being properly allocated.
But for Brown, the question of funding for NOPL can't wait. "There would be drastic reductions," he says, but "how those reductions would affect library services has not yet been decided.
"If you lose a quarter of your household income," Brown says, "something's got to go."