A top official in New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell’s administration told The Lens that he expects the New Orleans Public Library system to provide the same level of services it does now, even if voters pass a Cantrell-backed tax measure that would result in libraries losing over a third of their annual budget and possibly lead to a reduction in library staff. 

“I think that’s the plan and I think that’s what we’re asking the library administration to do through proper savings, attrition, redundancies and evaluation of expenditures,” Chief Administrative Officer Gilbert Montaño said in an interview with The Lens. “I mean, you’re going to have to go back to scratch on what you’re spending and why you’re spending it, with the goal being providing the same level of service.”

The library spent $19.4 million last year. Under the new proposal, it would receive $12 million to $13 million in property taxes. In an interview, Chief Administrative Officer Gilbert Montaño said that the main way to match spending with the new budget might be to shed employees. 

The majority of the library’s budget, about 75 percent, goes to paying its employees. The library was budgeted for more than 200 full-time positions this year. Montaño indicated that as long as the smaller operational budget stayed the same, the library could drastically reduce its staff to meet its new budget without sacrificing services. 

“The operations, to turn on the lights to maintain the facilities and have books available to the public and all of the above, is $5 million a year,” he said. “Everything else is personnel. How are they leveraged and utilized to carry out the service? That is what the main question is.”

The Wednesday interview followed a Tuesday night meeting of the New Orleans Public Library Board of Directors, during which board members, librarians and residents grilled a top official from Mayor LaToya Cantrell’s Administration over a proposal that would cut the library system’s tax collections by roughly 40 percent. 

Board members got the chance to question Montaño, casting doubt on a central argument employed by the administration to justify the cut — that a 40 percent reduction in tax revenue wouldn’t lead to any major changes to the library system.

At a City Council meeting last month, Montaño reassured council members that the library could continue providing its current services without any reductions. Montaño’s Tuesday presentation contained much of the same material. But some board members still didn’t see how Montaño’s math added up.

“We’ve kind of struggled over the last few weeks to understand where the numbers were coming from,” board member and Finance Committee chair James Chassee said. 

Some library workers attending the Tuesday board meeting charged Montaño with presenting misleading calculations that distorted the true consequences of the proposal for the library. 

“His data and research continue to appear much more malleable than one would expect at that level of administration,” said one library employee who asked to remain anonymous out of fear they could lose their job. “The continuing attempts to twist facts and rely on zero-sum methodologies… was concerning, as were direct back-to-back contradictions and flip-flops.”

December 5 election

The library revenue cut is part of a larger proposal from Cantrell that seeks to reshuffle how the city spends roughly $25 million from a group of dedicated property taxes that are set to expire at the end of 2021. Under the Mayor’s proposal, the library would lose $7.5 million to $8.5 million annually starting next year, representing roughly 40 percent of the library’s property tax revenue and roughly 36 percent of the library’s total budget.

The majority of the Library’s lost funds — $4.5 million — would be rededicated for the city’s economic development fund. There would also be funding increases for the city’s infrastructure fund and blight and affordable housing initiatives. Should the proposal pass the State Bond Commission this month, the decision will come down to voters through a ballot initiative on December 5.

At the City Council meeting last month, Montaño assured council members that he did not foresee layoffs as a result of the funding cut. Speaking to The Lens, he said that staffing reductions could be achieved through attrition rather than by firing current employees. He said that this was a city-wide strategy that would include incentives for early retirement.

The system spent $19.4 million in 2019, but the Cantrell administration maintains that the library’s budget should be closer to $17.5 million based on average expenditures over the last four years. But board members said taking the four year average was misleading.

“The finance committee when we met a couple days ago, there was consensus that that $19.4 million amount was really reflective of really a reasonable budget number to work from, rather than that $17.5 million average that you’ve been trying to start us with,” said board member Andrea Neighbours.

The reason the four-year average is so much lower than 2019 expenditures, board members argued, is that the library’s budget roughly doubled from 2015 to 2016 when Orleans Parish residents voted to approve a second property tax dedicated to the library.

“The average expenditure over the course of those four years doesn’t seem like the appropriate measurement for what it currently takes to run our system as it’s currently structured,” Chassee said. “We have added Nora Navra, we have relocated two branches from smaller locations to larger ones in Mid-City and Central City. And so I want to point out that I think it’s a mistake to take an average of the last four years because we’ve grown Significantly over the course of that time.”

Chassee asked Montaño whether taking the average was simply a “convenient approach” for the administration.

“I’m hoping to analogize your question,” Montaño responded. “If I was to look at the fire department last year, they were about $7 million in overtime over expenditures. We’ve since hired more firefighters. Now if I was to use that $7 million as a baseline, I would be over funding them by $7 million because now we’ve factored out and fixed that overtime issue. It’s very similar and that’s the rationale.”

Chassee again pushed back.

“But in that example, you’ve acknowledged that you need additional people to fill that spot, so you’ve worked to make sure you’ve hired people so you don’t have to pay overtime. Our situation is that we have now added libraries, programming and what not, such that our current expenses exceed that amount.”

At that point, Montaño said that the calculus was different for public safety agencies.

“Public safety agencies I don’t think are a fair comparison to ever make with more office setting agencies or administrative agencies or libraries or the like,” he said. “From a fire perspective or public safety perspective I consider those apples and oranges, because I have to have four figherfighters on the truck, I have to have 60 trucks at all given times. That is not the case for a library.”

‘That’s where I lean into the library administration’

Even if the library only needed $17.5 million to maintain its current operations, it’s unclear where it would get that money. The annual property tax revenue it would receive under Cantrell’s proposal would be between $12 million and  $13 million, down from $20 million or $21 million under the current tax structure. 

NOPL has a surplus fund of about $11.6 million, largely built up in the two years after New Orleans voters approved a new property tax for the system in 2015. Montaño told the council last month that the library could maintain services with the lower budget for two to three years by tapping into those reserves.

But on Tuesday, Montaño told the library board that he wasn’t necessarily endorsing the idea of running through those funds, he was only saying that it was possible from a financial perspective. 

“From a financial perspective there should be no need for changes over the course of those early years based on a significant fund balance tap,” he said. “Now is that the right thing to do? Absolutely not.”

In the interview on Wednesday, Montaño told The Lens that it would be up to the library to figure out maintain its level of service with a smaller budget and, possibly, a smaller staff.

“Where we end up, I still contend, should not cause the service delivery, what the public receives from the libraries, to be any different. It should be more. How that’s reflected on the operational side to get there, that’s where I lean into the library administration.”

Office of Business and External Services

Much of the public discussion over the library’s future has centered on its ability to maintain current services. But at times, in public statements and in his interview with The Lens, Montaño has focused less on the idea of continuing existing services than seeing the Library evolve into a new, reimagined institution that would be less independent and more under the control of City Hall. 

He has proposed using the library buildings to house other city services, specifically those under the newly created Office of Business and External Services. Montaño created the new office in the spring and hired former short-term rental executive Peter Bowen as the “founding entrepreneur” and director of the office. The new office, which Montaño described as “a major paradigm shift,” now oversees many of the city’s vital land use departments, including the Department of Safety and Permits, the Department of Code Enforcement and the City Planning Commission.

On Tuesday, the director of the city’s library system, Gabriel Morley, announced a pilot project at the Rosa F. Keller Library branch in Broadmoor. 

“We are partnering with the city now and the new Office of Business and External Services to try and figure out how we can do some external outreach services from the city’s perspective,” Morley said. “Instead of making those people go downtown to City Hall, we’re trying to set up some locations at libraries around the city where they can come in, even if it’s after our hours, and get the services they need.”

As for the library’s traditional uses, Chassee said that they would only be able to sustain current service levels for just over two years if the Mayor’s proposal is approved.

“We can essentially operate as is for 29 months,” he said. “It still is a short period of time. So I wanted to make sure all of you guys could digest that.”

Michael Isaac Stein

Michael Isaac Stein covers New Orleans' cultural economy and local government for The Lens. Before joining the staff, he freelanced for The Lens as well as The Intercept, CityLab, The New Republic, and...