By Ariella Cohen, The Lens staff writer |

New Orleans taxpayers are likely to be asked to pay more money to run city libraries, officials with that system told the City Council today.

The need for more operating funds is due in large part to a post-Katrina rebuilding of the system that one-time disaster grants paid for, which the city will be responsible for maintaining, New Orleans Public Library officials said. They spoke as part of the council’s three-week, department-by-department review of Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s proposed 2012 budget.

Still in construction phases, the rebuilding will leave New Orleans with five new libraries, including two large regional facilities that will replace smaller branches that existed before Hurricane Katrina. Intended to modernize an outdated network of dilapidated buildings built before computers and the Internet transformed the way we consume media, the revamp will permanently increase the system’s operating costs, library board member Helen Kohlman said at the conclusion of a more than two-hour hearing on the future of the system.

Library supporters came to lend their backing at City Council hearing today. Photo by Ariella Cohen

“FEMA paid for the buildings, but we still have the cost of personnel, and we are going to come to you guys,” Kohlman said.

The Lens reported Thursday on the long-term funding challenges facing the system.

The statement hinted at an eventual request that the council increase the tax rate the library charges New Orleans property owners. The library collects 3.14 mills of the total 147.58 mills in taxes east bank residents pay, and the 148.67 West Bank residents pay. The maximum library millage approved by voters is 4.32 mills. A single mill equals $1 of tax for every $1,000 of a home’s taxable assessed value, or $10,000 in presumed actual value.

Each mill generates about $2.6 million. This year, the library board voted to maintain the 3.14 millage rate through a roll forward of the rate, netting the system $8.5 million in tax revenue.

That revenue, however, wasn’t enough to fund operations this year and won’t be in the future, library board Chairman Lee Reid said.

The shortfall will be met in 2012 using $3.9 million from the system’s $11 million reserve fund.

That strategy isn’t sustainable, he said.

“We planned for this in 2012… we saved money while we operated temporary locations,” he said. “We won’t be able to depend on reserves in the long-term future.”

The increased cost is due to what most people would agree is a good thing – more staffing because facilities are larger and will potentially house technology that will require more support than the bookshelves of the 20th century.  Reid acknowledged that the system’s current hours, staffing and programming levels are below state standards and far below the national standards.

That status quo will be maintained in 2012, he said.

“But we know the status quo is not where we want to be.”

Council members agree. Councilwoman Kristin Gisleson Palmer called the library’s current level of service “unacceptable” and voiced disappointment in the fact that new buildings will not offer a higher level of service.

“We will have these brand new, beautiful buildings and they still will not be open to our families on Fridays and Sundays,” she said.

In 2009 and 2010, increases were considered but ultimately not supported by the City Council. Today, council members appeared open to the idea, particularly because the increase, if requested, would be for seemingly far-off 2013.

“It is obvious that the library is beneficial and essential to our community,” Councilman Jon Johnson said. He declined to comment on a theoretical tax increase a year away, but said the council “would do what it can to get funding to the library.”

Johnson said he was disappointed to learn about a cut that will delay the opening of a literacy program at a regional library under construction in eastern New Orleans.  The Lens reported on the cut Thursday.

“The budget process is not done,” he said. “We will be looking at these programs and how to restore funding to bring them to our community.”