A literacy class exercise spells out the library’s challenge: doing more with less. Photo by Ariella Cohen

By Ariella Cohen, The Lens staff writer |

Despite perennial financial woes and a tough rebound from Hurricane Katrina, the city’s long-beleaguered library system will start 2012 in better shape than many of its peers around the country. At a time when 60 percent of libraries nationwide report flat or significantly decreased operating budgets and staff layoffs, according to the American Library Association, New Orleans will open five gleaming new facilities this year, maintain all full-time employees and see only a slight dip in its operating budget.

But while a post-storm infusion of capital construction dollars and donations put the New Orleans Public Library in this relatively fortunate position, overall cuts in city spending are forcing library officials to scale back ambitious plans and recognize that the new libraries – within their modern, minimalist facades— will not differ much from the old ones, in terms of staffing, programming and hours.

The rebuilt Norman Mayer facility is one of five branch libraries scheduled to open despite budget cuts. Photo by Ariella Cohen

The adult literacy class planned for the East New Orleans Regional Library, now under construction, was recently put on hold after Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s proposed budget didn’t include money for the $75,000 program. A plan to use the city’s general fund to expand hours and keep all libraries open after 5 p.m. and on Sundays, to accommodate working people and families, was also shelved, along with an after-school program.

“At this point, we will be able to keep the status quo,” Lee Reid, chairman of the New Orleans Public Library, said in a recent interview.

Which is to say that the libraries will maintain limited hours, understaffed and under-programmed branches and a collection that is smaller than that of its peers around the country, according to a library system internal budget memo. In one of the unfunded budget requests submitted to the Landrieu administration, library officials described the system’s operations as falling “well below state standards.” Without millions of dollars in additional support for personnel, “when we open the new libraries, we will fall even further below the standards,” the officials said in documents likely to be discussed Friday at a hearing on the library’s proposed $8.5 million budget in City Council Chambers. This year, the library’s budget totaled $8.57 million, $62,038 more than proposed for the coming year.

On a recent Monday in a third-floor classroom of the library’s main branch on Loyola Avenue, a woman in cotton nursing scrubs haltingly sounded out the word frantic. “Like, that means when someone is scared, or afraid?” a classmate interjected. Next to her, a deaf student passed a question, in note form, to the lesson’s instructor.  The deaf man – with “9th Ward” tattooed on his arm in Gothic script — dropped out of school after losing his hearing. He was at the library to improve his reading skills so he could earn a high school equivalency diploma.

At a nearby table, men and women used magnetic letters to spell out three-letter words, moving one letter at a time to assemble rhymes. At one point, students transformed the word “hum” into “rum” before being stumped by “sum,” an unfamiliar word.

“We’re the only program that will take non-readers,” said Phyllis Gallagher, instruction coordinator for the YMCA Educational Services adult literacy program. “We see all levels from high school graduates, who can’t read at all but want to go to college, or trade school, to middle-aged folks with learning disabilities who just want to be able to read signs.”

YMCA Educational Services planned to offer a literacy class at the eastern New Orleans library as soon as doors open later this year. Now, until the nonprofit is able to piece together alternative funding, students will have to travel downtown for the class, Shannan Cvitanovic, executive director of YMCA Educational Services said.

“Had we gotten the money, we would have the center there when the eastern New Orleans library opens,” Cvitanovic said. “Now it’ll have to wait.”

She said the center is a top priority for her organization because there are very few services in the east and many people without reliable transportation to reach areas where there are more services. “There is a major need in the east and we are not giving up on this program,” Cvitanovic said.

The cut to the literacy program represents a minuscule portion of the tens of millions of dollars in programming cuts proposed by the mayor as he struggles to balance the city’s $494 million general operating fund for the coming year.  When looked at as part of the big picture, however, it demonstrates the hardball logic behind his reductions.

If Landrieu cuts popular or essential programs, departments and the City Council, which must approve the final budget, are confronted by a choice: either alienate constituents or force agencies to pony up cash from reserve funds that have been socked away over the years.

Last year, for instance, Landrieu gave the libraries $180,000 to supplement the $8.4 million it raised through a dedicated library tax millage approved by voters in 1986. That money paid for the YMCA adult literacy class at the main branch and other supplemental programming, including a homework hotline. This year, Landrieu gave nothing and told the library board that it would have to dig into its reserves to maintain its operating budget. Many departments face similar budget editing and nearly all face overall cuts, but the public library is the only department to see its share of the general fund drop to zero in 2012. A reassessment of property values is expected to bring in more tax money than last year– $8.5 million.

“They have been banking their millage revenue,” Chief Administrative Officer Andy Kopplin told the City Council at a recent budget hearing. “There may be a need to have a broader conversation at another point, but right now they are prepared to fully staff their libraries using that money they’ve squirreled away.”

“They have the resources they need to open these brand new libraries and fully staff them,” Kopplin assured the council.

Indeed, Reid says the $3 million from the system’s $12 million reserve will allow all branches to open at current staffing levels. That $3 million will come on top of $400,000 the board expects to net from a board-approved roll forward of the library’s 3.14 millage. That roll forward is necessary according to a state law that requires taxing authorities, in this case the library board, to reduce (“roll back”) the tax rate when total assessments rise, so that tax revenue remains flat (“revenue neutral”). The authority then has the option to vote to roll forward, or raise, the millage to its prior level.

“Between the roll forward and the reserves, we will be able to maintain our hours and do the things we need to do,” Reid said.

Yet as the ribbon-cuttings draw near, underlying questions about staffing put the system’s long-term sustainability in doubt.

This year, the library’s unfunded 2012 budget request for $11 million in general fund support included $5 million to cover personnel costs. Without money from the general fund,  “… the same number of staff would have to cover multi-level facilities with 40% more square footage. Branches will be closed 3-4 days per week and hours cut,” the NOPL budget request warns.

“Lines for assistance and computers would be long. Security and safety of staff and patrons (including our children) would be compromised.”

The funding request says the city is faced with a stark choice: “ between New Orleans Public Library being an affective agent of progress within our communities and families and being a closed, dark, empty building with no available staff when our citizens need our services and resources more than ever.”

How urgent is the threat? And is the library’s reserve fund enough to keep the system going? Reid, who was appointed by Landrieu last year to replace the outgoing library board chairman, trumpeter Irvin Mayfield, says the urgency factor is low, and the reserve fund will be enough.

“Knowing how tight things are citywide this year, we didn’t expect anything from the general fund,” he said.

He described the funding request as “an exercise for us to start to answer the question of ‘How do we achieve our long-term goal of becoming a world-class system?’ ”

No one denies that the goal of becoming a world-class system is a long way off.  In 2004, the system’s budget was approximately $18.45 per capita—placing it among the lowest of its peer libraries, according to a library Master Plan released in 2008. Evidence  could be seen in sparse bookshelves and aging computers, user Pheonicia Stevens recalled this week.

“It always felt like I already read everything there,” she said. But while per capita spending is higher this year— approximately $25 per capita, without an adjustment for inflation — staffing levels are lower. (The per capita rate was found by dividing the system’s annual budget of $8.5 million by the city’s official population of 343,829.)

In 2012, the system will employ 139.5 full-time workers, according to the library budget. That is 35 percent fewer employees than the 216 people employed by the system in 2004 for a population that is only 29 percent smaller. The library system’s 2008 Master Plan recommends an ultimate staff size of approximately 250 full-time employees. And as far as the per-capita measure goes, New Orleans is still behind the curve – peer systems have an average of $34.68 per capita, according to the 2008 master plan. To reach the ambitious goals outlined in the plan, spending in New Orleans would have to rise even higher, to $40.53 per capita.

“When we wrote these plans, they were opportunities to look at where we need to be, and what resources we would need, to compete with our peers locally and nationally,” Reid said. “It was a ‘Let’s start the conversation.’ ”

Reid is optimistic the conversation will continue. Others depend on it. At the close of a recent YMCA Educational Services class at the library’s main branch, student Lester Clark expressed gratitude for the program.

“I was too shy, too proud before,” Clark, a Carrollton resident, said. “I had lady friends trying to help me but I always had a second job. Had to keep the ship moving, put food on the table for my girls, but now here I am, at age 55.”

“Took a while to swallow my pride,” he added, “but the journey is worth it.”

How should New Orleans taxpayers’ money be spent?

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