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Confusion, controversy and cuts: Funding for city libraries on Dec. 5 ballot

If voters do approve Proposition 2, it would not only cut revenues for libraries but also redirect $1.5 million each year to early childhood education.

NEW ORLEANS — As New Orleanians go to the polls on Saturday focused mainly on a bitter district attorney’s race, a package of three property taxes is also stirring passions and breeding confusion.

Most of the bitterness centers on Proposition 2, Mayor LaToya Cantrell’s proposal to take about $7.5 million away from the New Orleans Public Library system each year for the next 20 years and redirect it to workforce development, maintaining infrastructure and early childhood education programs.

The city’s library system has been a lightning rod for controversy since 2015, when voters approved a near-doubling of taxes to support a slew of newly renovated or expanded library branches. Just days later, WWL-TV’s exclusive investigation of the former Public Library Board chairman, Irvin Mayfield, exposed how the Grammy-winning trumpeter had used his position at a library support charity to transfer more than $1 million in private donations for city libraries to the jazz orchestra he ran.

Just last month, Mayfield and his partner Ronald Markham pleaded guilty to a federal criminal conspiracy to defraud the library system. So, it’s a particularly raw time for library patrons and supporters to see Cantrell asking voters to all but undo the enlarged library funding they approved so recently at her behest.

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As a city councilwoman in 2014, Cantrell urged voters to pay about $10 million a year in additional taxes to support public libraries.

“The future of our city depends on it. Like, right now. Not tomorrow. Not the next generation. Like, right now,” she told WWL-TV. 

But now that she’s mayor, Cantrell’s administration says the library budget is out of whack.

“This is about right-sizing the library's budget in order to make sure that it can continue to sustain its operations and continue to deliver services for the public, but do that in a way that's modernized,” said Emily Wolff, director of Cantrell’s Office of Youth and Families.

Library Director Gabriel Morley said he can take advantage of a leftover fund balance of about $15 million, built up in 2016 and 2017 as the library system ramped up from an $11 million annual budget to spending about $20 million a year. He also promised some cost-savings and downsizing to keep library services at current levels, at least until the surplus is exhausted.

“We've already declined to fill 21 vacancies,” Morley said. “That saves another million dollars. And we know we can nickel and dime operational expenses. We can take money from association dues, consultant fees, marketing, fixtures, furniture, equipment. That'll knock off another million.”

But Andrea Neighbours, a member of the New Orleans Public Library Board of Directors, isn’t buying it.

“And after this fund balance is depleted in about 18 months, then what?” Neighbours asked at the Nov. 10 board meeting. “You know, there’s efficiencies we can have, but we’re going to inevitably see layoffs and branch closures and hours and days cut and cuts to programs and acquisitions. And it’s going to be devastating to kids in this city.”

The Nov. 10 library board meeting was the first to address the city’s proposed cuts under Proposition 2. There had been no discussion of any cuts before the ballot measure was announced, and the Cantrell administration began touting its new millage proposals only over the last few weeks.

At a news conference Wednesday touting Proposition 2, Morley was asked if there was any written plan for how he would fund the library system with $14 million a year instead of $20 million. He said, “No,” and explained that he would use data to find efficiencies.

By contrast, the 2015 library millage took a yearlong, concerted effort by recently retired Library Board Chairman Bernard Charbonnet and a coalition of business leaders to pass.

The Save Our Libraries Coalition – a group of library workers, local unions, education reformers and library patrons headed by the nonprofit Friends of the New Orleans Public Library – has emerged, urging voters to say “No On #2” and accusing the Cantrell administration of peddling “misinformation” about the library cuts.

Neighbours also said the Cantrell administration was misleading voters with information posted on the city library website. The site makes no mention of the 40% cut to the library budget if Proposition 2 passes, only saying it will “continue fulfilling its mission of transforming lives, enriching neighborhoods, and preserving history by offering safe and welcoming spaces and providing free, educational, informational, and recreational resources, programs, and activities for all ages.”

But in describing what happens if Proposition 2 fails, the website says the library will suffer “a 50% funding cut resulting in the possibility of reduced locations, operating hours, and significantly decreased collections, programs, and technology budgets.”

While the library would lose 50% of its tax revenues if the current tax millage isn’t renewed, it does not expire until the end of 2021.

Last month, the Public Library Board unanimously passed a resolution asking the city to keep the current library tax millage in place for 2021. Some members of the board, including chairwoman Phala Kimbrough-Mire, cast the vote as “a formality.” But Neighbours went a step further, adding her voice to the calls to reject Proposition 2.

“Our millage doesn’t expire until next year,” she said. “We have time to work on a better solution. So, I can’t support this proposal. I hope the voters kill it.”

The Cantrell administration is trying to walk a fine line to rally voters’ support. It’s presenting Proposition 2 in a package with Propositions 1 and 3, calling it a “renewal” of three existing taxes at the same combined millage rate.

“I understand that there are concerns with, as some are saying, taking money from the library,” City Chief Administrative Officer Gilbert Montano said. “I do not see it that way. I see it redistributing for the overall collective community so that we can ensure that those kids have an opportunity.”

While Proposition 2 would reduce the total tax burden by $6 million to $7 million a year, Proposition 1 would increase taxes for infrastructure and maintenance by about $1 million annually and Proposition 3 would pump an extra $5 million to $6 million a year into economic development.

Montano said Proposition 1 would allow the city to invest long-term in maintaining its infrastructure, with its first dedicated tax revenues for upkeep of streets, drainage, machinery and equipment, including police cars.

He said Proposition 3 would keep a current tax that already raises about $4 million a year for a Neighborhood Housing Improvement Fund, then more than double the rate to support job training and the city’s economic development public-private partnership called the NOLA Business Alliance.

Montano said the city’s JOB1 Business and Career Solutions training program is a particularly critical need amid the coronavirus pandemic, with about 44,000 New Orleanians now unemployed or underemployed.

If voters approve all three, the combined rate of 5.82 mills will raise between $23.5 million and $25.5 million a year for the next 20 years, the same as it did in 2020. But if voters split their ticket and approve Propositions 1 and 3 while rejecting Proposition 2, the combined rate would actually increase by 1.5 mills, raising an extra $6 million, in 2021, when the current library tax is set to expire.

Regardless, the city’s overall tax rate is sure to decrease for 2021, though, because it is due to pay off some old debts next year and the Board of Liquidation recently reduced its tax rate by 3 mills, or about $12 million.

If voters do approve Proposition 2, it would not only cut revenues for libraries but also redirect $1.5 million each year to early childhood education. The city had been tapping its general fund over the last three years to support the New Orleans Early Education Network City Seats program, and this would create a dedicated revenue stream for that program for the next two decades.

Kristi Givens, owner of the Kids of Excellence Learning Center in the Desire neighborhood, said the program has allowed her to add staff, pay them livable wages and accept more children while maintaining a 4-to-1 student-to-teacher ratio. Givens gave the example of one mother who, in turn, was able to improve her life because she had access to accredited childcare.

“When this additional funding came about, she was on a waiting list” to send her child to Kids of Excellence. “She was able to get her child into our center. Now, this parent goes to nursing school five days a week because she knows her child is safe in a high-quality program,” Givens said.

Neighbours praised the city’s plan to support early childhood programs, but questioned if those benefits are worth the libraries’ losses.

“Every five dollars the library is losing, early childhood is only getting 1 dollar!” she said at the Nov. 10 board meeting. “So, we’re devastating our libraries to give pennies to early childhood education. It just makes no sense.”

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