NEW ORLEANS Mayor Mitch Landrieu's administration and the New Orleans City Council are working out details of a tax increase proposal for the December election ballot, and the cash-strapped public library system will be included in some form or fashion, the library board chairman said.
'While there is a millage proposal for December, we're not sure what the magnitude will be for the library system yet, but I've been assured it will be funded,' said Bernard Charbonnet, the chairman of the New Orleans Public Library board.
This is an important development following the WWL-TV report in April that the library system will not have enough money to operate any of its 14 libraries. The Eyewitness Investigation found that the system had blown through its $12 million post-Hurricane Katrina reserve fund over the last three years, and the $8.7 million raised by the dedicated property tax millage this year is not even enough to pay the personnel costs.
The reserve fund can still cover the shortfall this year and part of next. But the system needs to raise $3 million more a year, starting next year, just to cover the current price tag of utilities, collections and programming. The library board also is hoping to get even more because the dedicated tax raises only about a third of what Baton Rouge's library millage brings in, and the libraries here stay open half as long because of it.
Charbonnet said Landrieu personally assured him this week that libraries would be included in the city's request for new millages, and if additional money was necessary to keep them at current funding levels, the city could draw on general fund dollars for the libraries for the first time in years.
But the details are still being worked out. Deputy Mayor Emily Arata says city leaders are putting together a package of budget cuts, City Hall organizational changes and new revenues. Normally, this work could wait until budget hearings in the fall, but there's a July 24 deadline for the City Council to adopt specific requests for tax increases on the December ballot.
'I think right now there's some uncertainty in the budget,' Arata said. 'We've got the outstanding question of how much the sheriff's consent decree will cost. What will the cost be of firefighters' pension? But certainly, no one wants to see services cut at the library.
'As we're putting this package together, we're supportive of a sustainable funding stream for the library,' Arata added. 'Whether that's in the form of a millage or additional general fund dollars, we're looking to get there.'
Political analyst Silas Lee says the mayor and City Council have to be careful not to ask for too much, especially because voters soundly defeated a tax increase proposal for the Audubon Institute this spring.
'You cannot have an a la carte approach whereby voters will have to decide whether or not to support each initiative,' Lee said. 'Ideally, you would like to bundle these initiatives.'
But the city will not be able to put all of the potential tax increase proposals into one ballot question.
That's because a proposal to double the police and fire millages to raise an additional $32 million to help hire more police, cover reforms required by the Justice Department consent decree and pay for firefighter pension liabilities requires a change to the state Constitution.
The State Legislature already approved a statewide vote on Nov. 4, asking voters from across Louisiana if Orleans Parish voters should be given the opportunity to vote in December to raise more money for police and fire protection.
Arata said New Orleans is the only municipality in the state that must get approval from voters statewide just to get the right to vote on a police and fire tax increase. Lee said that creates some uncertainty for New Orleans leaders.
'There are some voters in the state who might say, 'That's a New Orleans issue, let them decide.' And there are some voters who will say, 'We are opposed to any type of taxes.' Now, how vocal and organized they are is going to be very interesting,' Lee said.
If statewide voters don't agree to let Orleans voters consider a police and fire millage increase, it would create a new set of funding challenges. Arata said they have already cut $100 million in spending, but the administration and the council are trying to find more places to cut to reduce the amount of new taxes they will have to request in December.