Stacks of problems: New N.O. libraries quickly in financial peril

Posted on April 24, 2014 at 10:39 PM

Updated Friday, Apr 25 at 8:01 AM

David Hammer / Eyewitness News
Email: | Twitter: @davidhammerWWL

NEW ORLEANS – All is not as it seems in the New Orleans Public Library system.

Five gleaming new libraries — central to the recovery of neighborhoods like Broadmoor, Lakeview and eastern New Orleans — have been a big hit since reopening in 2011 and 2012.

But the libraries have been so costly to operate that the system has blown through a $12 million reserve fund in about three years, mostly to handle the expanded staffing costs. A dedicated tax millage that hasn’t increased since 1986 — and was rolled back after Hurricane Katrina — no longer raises enough money to cover the system’s personnel costs.

The tax raised $8.7 million last year, but personnel alone cost $8.9 million, leaving only the reserves to cover the $3 million needed for computers, software, maintenance, security, utilities, office supplies and,  most significantly, books.

 No money left to turn the lights on

“We’ll have no operating funds to put the lights on, to open the library, to augment our collections and all the things that libraries do,” Library Board Chairman Bernard Charbonnet said.

Meanwhile, the $2.8 million in federal money needed to rebuild the Nora Navra branch in the 7th Ward is in hand, but the library sits untouched since the storm, in part because system leaders aren’t sure if they’ll be able to afford to operate the location it if it does reopen.

“Frugally, you would think, should I renovate a library and I can’t operate it? Well, we got to ask that question across the board. Can we afford the entire system?” Charbonnet said.

(See a larger map of the public library system in New Orleans)

Starting in 2015, the city must find another $3 million just to maintain current service levels and programming options at the existing branches. Even if that happens, the system would still lag woefully behind other city systems its size in terms of funding per capita, and even behind the other major library systems in the state of Louisiana.

A chart compiled by the library administration shows that New Orleans’ dedicated library tax raises less than $23 per capita. By contrast, Baton Rouge, with the same number of libraries, spends almost three times as much per person — $63.32 — and is able to stay open almost twice as many hours each week.

The New Orleans system built up its reserves after Katrina because it laid off dozens of librarians and only had nine libraries to run, many of them in small, temporary trailers.

Lacking leadership?

In December 2011, the New Orleans Public Library Foundation, a nonprofit that collects donations in support of library services, hired consultant Louise Shaper to assess the system’s performance.

New Orleans Public Library “is an underperforming organization that sorely lacks the leadership, clarity of purpose, and resources needed to provide even average library services,” Shaper wrote. “This state of affairs is a chronic condition, predating Hurricane Katrina.”

Charbonnet said that since the new libraries have opened, residents have been largely unaware of the underlying fiscal problems because of the spacious reading areas, interesting artwork, banks of new computers and the host of librarians.

But if the city can’t find new money soon, Library Director Charles Brown said he will be forced to cut back on staff, reduce hours of operation and cut back on maintenance.

Library leaders have not hidden their financial struggles, appealing each of the last few years at City Council budget hearings for at least some city general fund money. But with court-ordered costs for police, firefighters and the jail taking center stage, the libraries’ needs have received little public attention.

A time for action

Councilwoman LaToya Cantrell, who was integral in the $6.8 million effort to rebuild the Rosa Keller Library in Broadmoor, says the time for action is here.

“It’s going to be up the people and up to elected officials, I would say, to set that tone and say we cannot be without our libraries,” Cantrell said. “The future of our city depends on it. Like, right now. Not tomorrow. Not the next generation. Like, right now.”

Mayor Mitch Landrieu, meanwhile, allotted $180,000 to the library in 2011, but has otherwise dedicated no general fund money.

That, said Landrieu’s Chief Administrative Officer Andy Kopplin, was by design.

“The good news is, the library had built up that surplus, and it was part of our plan all along to spend down that surplus as we launched the five regional libraries,” Kopplin said.

Library leaders have been meeting with Landrieu administration officials, discussing the possibility of asking voters for a new library tax, dedicating general fund money, raising grant or bond funds, or some combination of all of those tactics.

Kopplin said they haven’t come up with the specific plan yet, but he acknowledges time is short. The City Council would have to vote by June 5 to approve any referendum for a new tax millage to get it on the November ballot.

The only other election date on the calendar before the library expects its reserves to run out is in December. The deadline to get a referendum on that ballot is in October.

A pressing need

Kopplin said the library would be carefully considered along with a host of other pressing needs for general fund money, and Charbonnet said Landrieu assured him that libraries would not be forced to close. Cantrell said that libraries are critical to reducing crime, and so the choice to use at least some general fund money on them should be clear.

“We can’t talk about reducing our jail population to 1,438 and still have the conversation about zero money for libraries,” she said. “It doesn’t work that way.”

Charbonnet, Kopplin and Cantrell all agree that a new tax is a tough request.

“The question is, what is the most palatable way to approach the public to fund the system?” Charbonnet said.

Getting the $3 million to cover the immediate gap would take a relatively minor 1-mill increase, amounting to about $20 in new property taxes on a $200,000 home. But the library board is talking about a 6-mill hike, around $120 more for an average homeowner to pay each year, arguing that it’s needed to get the system up to the state standards.

Charbonnet says that would also allow the city to operate Nora Navra, open branch libraries on Fridays and relocate the city archives, housed in the basement of the main library.

Tax records show the New Orleans Public Library Foundation has raised at least $4 million in private donations since 2007, but it has given only a few hundred thousand dollars to the system during that time. Most of that money is tied up in investments, and the organization has recently changed its mission statement to focus on supporting library-type services, like literacy campaigns, regardless of where they are offered.

The foundation board chairman, Ronald Markham, declined to comment about the foundation’s work.