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

A dedicated property tax that provides roughly half of the annual funding for the New Orleans Public Library is set to expire at the end of the year. But voters will very likely get a chance, later this year, to decide on whether to renew it. 

At a Tuesday meeting, the New Orleans Public Library Board of Directors discussed how it could make sure residents vote yes. The vote could come during either the Oct. 9 or Nov. 13 elections this year, but board members indicated that it was more likely to happen in November due to filing deadlines. 

New Orleans’ library system is primarily funded through two dedicated property taxes of similar size that bring in roughly $21 million a year combined. The first one, approved by voters in 1986, expires at the end of this year. The second was approved by New Orleans voters in 2015 by a wide margin. 

The board heard a presentation from John Chrastka, the executive director of EveryLibrary, a national nonprofit that builds voter support for library funding initiatives. Chrastka helped work on that successful 2015 campaign, he said.

“The biggest tent I’ve ever seen is the 2015 camapagn,” he said. “And i’d like to get back to that.”

Chrastka talked about key issues for voters, the need to do local polling and the importance of presenting a strategic plan to illustrate why the library needs the money. He said that one key issue to overcome would be voters’ potentially altered perceptions of the library in light of the coronavirus crisis. 

Another issue, he said, would be regaining voters’ trust after a controversial 2020 campaign, promoted by top library administrators, to pass a series of ballot measures that would have resulted in the New Orleans Public Library losing about 40 percent of its funding. Voters rejected all three proposals in the December 5 election. 

Chrastka made clear that he and his organization were not part of that campaign. 

“EveryLibrary was not a participant in that,” he said. 

Last year, Mayor LaToya Cantrell put forward a controversial ballot proposition that would have replaced the library’s expiring property tax with a much smaller one, shifting about $7 million per year from the library to other city priorities, including economic development and infrastructure. 

Cantrell and top library administrators, including Library Director Gabriel Morely, promoted the proposal in a highly misleading campaign that claimed the library system could absorb the 40 percent cut without sacrificing any library branches, hours or services. Late in the campaign, Morley admitted he hadn’t seen a fully developed plan showing how that was possible.

But a grassroots campaign coalesced in response, under the “Save Our NOLA Libraries” banner, encouraging residents to vote against the proposal. And in December, 57 percent of voters rejected the plan. 

“As the ballot measure became more and more clear, it wasn’t a good fit for EveryLibrary to participate in either the ‘yes’ activity or the ‘no’ activity,” Chrastka said. “And I gotta say it was a hard decision for us to say we’re gonna sit this one out.”

Chrastka said he wanted to see the tax renewed in full, not at a reduced rate like Cantrell proposed last year.

After the December ballot measure failed, members of the New Orleans City Council said that they would work with the Library to put forward another ballot measure this year that would renew the expiring dedicated property tax at its full rate.

“I think the public spoke very loudly and clearly about what they want from the library system,” Councilwoman Kristin Palmer said at a December council meeting shortly after the library ballot measure failed. 

The City Council still wants the library to produce a strategic plan for how to use that money before members take a vote to put the proposition on the ballot. On Tuesday, Michelle Thomas, a consultant hired by the board, told board members that the plan would be ready in May.

But even after the hurdle of getting the proposition on the ballot, it still needs to pass. Though December’s vote may have indicated that voters are friendly to a full renewal, Chrastka pointed out that the library was facing some unusual circumstances this year that make things uncertain, including the coronavirus crisis and the confusion caused during the 2020 campaign. 

“I think a lot of us had been working with an assumption that whatever millage renewal we do will pass because the December 2020 ballot failed,” said board member Anna Nguyen. “But you’re saying we really need to put money toward the polls to figure out where voters are, especially during COVID times?”

“Whether or not you had December 2020 in the rear view mirror or not, this is a best practice,” Chrastka said. “And my one concern coming out of COVID is that the voters might be disconnected from how important the New Orleans Public Library is for the quality of life in their community. I’m not suggesting their memory is short, but COVID has been very disruptive.”

A campaign for a renewal needs to be clear and honest, Chrastka said, to overcome any potential voter distrust from the December proposal. 

“I’m not interested in adjudicating the last campaign, but I do want to make sure we can talk like adults about what did transpire,” he said. “The lack of clarity about where things should be going in previous elections might have hurt you. “

He said that the library would need to work at “restoring faith, and making whole again the relationship that might have gotten disrupted in December 2020.”

To that end, Chrastka said that he agreed with the City Council that the library should produce a strategic plan, not only to account for a successful renewal vote, but also for the loss of the millage funds if the vote fails. That way, he said, people could clearly see what’s at stake.

“The last election was an unusual one,” he said. “I’d like the strategic planning process to be a reunification between all of us.”

Correction: As originally published, this article incorrectly attributed a quote to Courtney Kearney, a board member for the nonprofit Friends of the New Orleans Public Library. The correct source was New Orleans Public Library board member Anna Nguyen. (Jan. 12, 2020)

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...