The Main Branch of the New Orleans Public Library (Michael Isaac Stein/The Lens)

A board member for the New Orleans Public Library, Andrea Neighbours, blasted a property tax proposal that will appear on the Dec. 5 election ballot, which, if passed, would reduce the library’s tax collections by roughly 40 percent.

Speaking at a Tuesday board meeting, Neighbours criticized library officials for appearing to take a supportive position on the proposal and asked why the library is not doing more to inform patrons about how the ballot measure would strip library funds.

“There have been some references throughout this board meeting about the millage and this understanding that this is something that we’re behind, supportive of, I guess. We haven’t had much discussion,” she said. “It’s just too deep a cut for this library to sustain and be able to fulfill our mission and vision and values and responsibilities to the citizens of this city. … We’re going to inevitably see layoffs and branch closures, hours and days cut and cuts to programs and acquisitions.”

The ballot initiative is part of a broader property tax proposal from Mayor LaToya Cantrell to reconfigure how the city spends a package of property taxes worth about $25 million, all of which expire at the end of 2021. The plan essentially takes roughly $8 million away from the library’s roughly $20 million in annual property tax collections and diverts it towards housing programs, economic development, infrastructure maintenance and childhood education. In all, voters will decide on three property tax proposals in December. 

New Orleans Public Library Executive Director Gabriel Morley has been supportive of Cantrell’s plan. He’s repeatedly said that if the ballot measure fails, the library would lose the entire value of the expiring property tax — roughly $11 million a year — instead of just part of it. 

But Neighbours noted on Tuesday that if the ballot measure failed, the library could still keep its current funding in place for another year. The entire package of property taxes, or millages, doesn’t expire until the end of 2021.

“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. I hope we come back in the coming year and come up with a better solution that works for the kids and the families of this city. So I just want to be on record as a board member who loves this library deeply that I just can’t support it.”

Library board chair Phala Mire said that she would schedule a special meeting between now and the Dec. 5 vote to discuss the library board’s position on the proposal. It was unclear exactly when that will happen.

“The administration developed this proposal in partnership with board and library leadership,” Emily Wolff, Director of the Mayor’s Office of Youth and Families, said a statement. “The opinion expressed by Ms. Neighbours is not shared by the overwhelming majority of the board. Those board members understand that we are faced with an unprecedented economic crisis, resources are limited and all departments are experiencing reductions.”

The statement also reiterated past statements from the administration that “this proposal will absolutely not result in the closure of branches, layoffs or diminished programs.”

‘Devastating for kids’

One major selling point for Cantrell’s tax proposal has been dedicated funding for childhood education. Cantrell’s political action committee, Action New Orleans, is selling the measure as an increase in childhood education, without mentioning that the new funding comes with a drastically reduced library budget.

On Tuesday, Neighbours asked Morley whether the library was planning to create any materials or fact sheets for staff so they can better answer questions about the tax proposal’s effects.

Morley said that he was working with the New Orleans Campaign for Grade Level Reading, an effort from the United Way of Southeast Louisiana, on those materials. The Campaign for Grade Level Reading has come out in favor of the tax proposal. 

“So wait, you’re saying that you’re going to be using the fact sheet from the early childhood development people?” Neighbours asked. “Do you have any idea if what they’re working with has any information about what the cut the library budget will be under this new millage? Because when I looked at their materials, I didn’t see that fully reflected. And so it feels like the information is missing some critical pieces.”

Morley asked if she was looking for that information in terms of dollars.

“Percent-wise, dollar-wise, just some representation about what this millage proposal will mean as far as slashing the budget as we know it for the next 20 years,” Neighbours responded.

“We can look at adding that,” Morley said. “I think that may have been on an earlier draft and may have gotten cut out.”

The Campaign for Grade Level Reading manager Jillian Delos Reyes criticized the proposal just a few months ago. In August, she wrote a letter to Cantrell explaining that the campaign wouldn’t support the ballot initiative as originally proposed. She asked that proposed funding for early childhood education be increased and packaged together with a separate millage proposal, for economic development. As it stands now, it is included in the reduced library millage proposal

“The Campaign for Grade-Level Reading cannot support the millage proposal in its current form,” the letter said, arguing that it “dramatically reduces funding for the New Orleans Public Library, a partner that is critical to our vision of every New Orleans child reading on grade level by the end of third grade.”

“I urge you to work with us if we are going to successfully provide a direct funding source for early childhood education,” Cantrell responded. “Understand that ultimatums will not get us there, but working together on a path forward will.”

Since then, the campaign seems to have switched gears and thrown its weight behind the proposal, even though their requested changes were never made. In September, in response to questions from The Lens, Reyes said that “the Campaign’s stance is in favor of public support for early care and education – that has never changed.”

On Tuesday, Neighbours questioned whether the $1.5 million extra a year for childhood education — included in the library and early childhood millage proposal — justified losing $7.5 million to $8.5 million a year for the library.

“It’s going to be devastating to kids in this city,” Neighbours said. “And what are we getting for this? Early childhood is getting $1.5 million. Every $5 the library is losing, early childhood education gets only $1. So we’re devastating our library system to give pennies to early childhood education. It just makes no sense. We’re doing five times the harm as we are good.”

Exactly how the library would adjust to the new, lower budget is still unclear. Morley presented the library’s 2021 budget to the City Council this week, but it was built on the assumption that their funding will remain the same as it was in 2020.

“We presented the budget the library board approved several months ago when we had to turn it in initially to the city before we found out anything about the upcoming millage election,” Morley said at Tuesday’s library board meeting. “If that measure is approved and we need to implement those budget cuts, [fiscal officer Michel Thompson] and I are prepared to do that. We’ve been talking about that for months.”

At the council presentation, Morley said that the library had an employee attrition rate between 10 and 13 percent a year. He said that the library could reduce their budget by simply not filling those empty positions for three years, and use the library’s reserves to make up for lost revenue in the meantime.

One library staff member, Amanda Doss, pointed out that Morley’s strategy would result in a 39 percent staff reduction, and questioned how services could remain consistent with such a deep cut. Morley and Cantrell administration officials have maintained that the library can absorb the cuts without any reduction in library services. 

Cantrell administration requests new policies on employee grievances, discipline

Also at Tuesday’s busy meeting, Neighbours and another board member questioned a different proposal from the Cantrell administration that would amend the library’s employee grievance and discipline policies. The changes were considered just days after the library instituted partial furloughs for all library employees, and after library leaders warned that further furloughs, and possibly layoffs, are expected next year. The proposal was deferred to the next board meeting.

The changes, proposed by Morely at the behest of the City Attorney’s Office, would erase the library’s “progressive discipline” portion, where penalties for first-time infractions are relatively light, and get progressively more severe for subsequent infractions. 

The proposal would also alter the library’s employee grievance policy, which dictates how employees can file complaints and the process for talking to higher level supervisors. Under current rules, that process culminates in the complaint being sent to the library board. Under the proposal, that grievance process would ultimately come to the city’s Chief Administrative Officer, who is appointed by the Mayor, instead of the board.

Neighbours asked the library’s Director of Human Resources, Ross Matthews, whether he thought it was a “staff friendly move” to remove progressive discipline. Matthews said it would not mean more severe punishment for minor, first-time offenses.

“By removing, it doesn’t mean we won’t continue to counsel, manage and work with our employees who need to improve,” he said. “It’s in some ways a matter of semantics.”

Matthews said the current language of the policy allowed library employees to appeal all of those progressive disciplinary steps to the Civil Service Commission, instead of just being able to appeal the ultimate disciplinary action that comes at the end of those progressive steps.

“Anything that’s considered discipline is appealable to the hearing board,” Matthews said. “And the trend lately is for them to hear an appeal from any employee who gets any sort of counseling or write up of any kind, and the City Attorney’s office has told us they’re having trouble defending those.”

“The attorney has said that even a counseling form, you know, ‘you’ve been late 10 times in the last month, you need to improve,’ if that lands in an employee’s personnel file at civil service, the trend has been they’re considering that to be a disciplinary action and therefore appealable. So it’s bogging down the attorneys who defend the library in these civil service hearings.”

That opinion from the City Attorney’s Office fits into a larger current struggle between Cantrell’s office and the Civil Service Commission — an independent body that oversees employment matters, from layoffs to raises, for the majority of the city’s workforce and was put in place to protect employees from politically motivated interference from elected officials and their political appointees. 

The Cantrell administration recently lobbied to replace the chairwoman of the Civil Service Commission over objections that the commission had become too labor-oriented and “more reluctant to deny employee appeals.” Cantrell has also openly criticized the one member of the commission chosen by city employees, who works for the fire department, for refusing to recuse himself from votes that would affect his compensation.

One library employee, Rory Granger, spoke on Tuesday to voice his opposition to ending progressive discipline.

“I think it’s a callous maneuver that unnecessarily puts workers at risk. This is a full time job for most of us, the way we’re paying rent and putting food on the table. I think getting rid of our progressive discipline is opening the door for at will termination and sending a bad message to current and future employees of [the library].”

Another library board member, James Chassee, had reservations about changing the library’s grievance policy. His main concern was that there was a grievance currently working its way through that process, although he didn’t say what that grievance was, or why it matters whether it was taken to the library board versus the CAO’s office.

“I would argue that most of the board members don’t fully understand what were trying to change here,” he said. “I guess I’m a little bit concerned that there’s an open request for a grievance in the process right now.”

Library board chair Phala Mire asked if the issue could be deferred to a different day. Morley said that was fine, and that the library simply wouldn’t be implementing the policy in the meantime.

“We’re not going to issue anymore written discipline warnings anyway,” he said. “We’ll just work around it for the time being.”

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...