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

The New Orleans Public Library is poised to place a ballot measure on the Nov. 13 ballot that would fully renew a key property tax that provides nearly half the library’s funding. The New Orleans City Council still has to officially vote to place the proposition on the ballot, but the library cleared a major hurdle this week by gaining the approval of Mayor LaToya Cantrell.

That support is a big change from last year, when Cantrell put forward a package of ballot proposals that would have cut the library’s tax collections by roughly 40 percent, shifting those resources to economic development, housing and blight, infrastructure and maintenance and early childhood education. Voters rejected the proposals by wide margins in December.

Last year’s ballot measure would have also given the City Council the power to allocate the funds to either the library or other early childhood education programs. But a Cantrell administration official told The Lens that this time, the intention is to craft a ballot proposal that would renew the tax in full, sending all revenue directly to the library. 

“That is the intention, for the millage to be just a re-approval of the existing millage rate that would go to the New Orleans Public Library,” Emily Wolff, director of the city’s Office of Youth and Families, told The Lens in an interview.

The existing library tax, approved by voters 35 years ago, expires at the end of this year.

The key to gaining Cantrell’s support for the new ballot measure is a 10-year strategic plan the library released on Tuesday. Cantrell held a press conference on Wednesday announcing her approval and support of that plan. 

“This plan is about reimagining our libraries and the role they could and should play in the everyday lives of our residents,” Cantrell said. “The library is not just a place to check out books, participate in story time or hop on a computer. It’s all that but so much more.”

The plan lays out a vision of a library that invests some of its own resources into many of the same areas that Cantrell was trying to divert library funds to last year: early childhood education, literacy and economic development.

Economic development was the biggest part of last year’s tax plan, which diverted millions per year from the library to a city economic development fund, which is used in part to lure business to the city. The new strategic plan promises workforce training and small business development resources with library funds. It does not offer specifics on potential costs for the new initiatives.

“For the committed patrons, their local library is already a part of their lifestyle,” the plan said. “However, the framework laid out in this strategic plan aims to create a library lifestyle for residents across the city. This requires reimagining what the library is and does. It pushes us to think beyond the bricks and mortar and create innovative ways to connect the community to the library’s resources.”

The three “pillars” of the plan are more resources for kids and teens, more focused workforce preparation, and expanded access and partnerships with the broader community.

Specific ideas include drone book deliveries, more workforce and childhood education specialists and a new “African American Resource Collection Equity and Inclusion Center.” The plan also calls for more creative, flexible uses of physical library spaces. 

“We believe we’ve gotten all that we want from the focus of NOPL and the future growth of our city and our young people,” Cantrell said. “We believe what is built in this plan… it reflects the investments that we want to make in people but particularly in our children.”

She said that based on the plan, she would support the full renewal. 

The strategic plan also got the thumbs up from library board member Andrea Neighbours, who was an outspoken opponent of Cantrell’s 2020 tax plan.

“This 10-year plan is phenomenal,” Neighbors said at a Tuesday library board meeting.

‘There’s not a dollar sign in there’

The library is primarily funded by two similarly sized dedicated property taxes — both approved by voters through ballot initiatives — that bring in about $20 million a year. The expiring tax was approved in 1986. And voters overwhelmingly approved the second tax in 2015. It will not expire until 2040.

Last year, as Cantrell was pushing for a drastic budget reduction for the library, her administration argued that the library had more dedicated revenue than it actually needed. It pointed specifically to the library’s large reserves.

When the administration first rolled out the plan in August, it said the library had amassed $11.6 million. That grew to $14.3 million by the end of 2020. In an August presentation, the city’s Chief Administrative Officer Gilbert Montaño said that from 2016 through 2019, the library underspent it’s budget by 11 percent on average. 

But critics accused the Cantrell administration of misleading the public on the library’s actual annual surpluses. They said that almost all of the reserve funds were amassed in 2016 and 2017 — the first two years that the library’s second dedicated property tax came online. 

Opponents of the mayor’s plan said that the library needed time to adjust its drastically bigger budget over the first two years, and pointed out that the library was spending nearly its full budget in recent years. In 2016 and 2017, the library underspent its budget by 18 percent and 22 percent, respectively. But in 2018, the library only underspent its budget by 3 percent, and just 2 percent in 2019. 

As for the surplus jump in 2020, that was in large part due to coronavirus related budget cuts and employee furloughs that were mandated by the Cantrell administration. The library didn’t see a large revenue drop last year, since almost all its funds come from property taxes, which are collected at the beginning of the year and weren’t affected by the coronavirus in 2020. 

Voters ultimately shot down the Mayor’s plan in December. In February, the City Council announced that it would put forward another ballot proposal this year that would allow the library to retain its full funding. But some council members remained concerned about the library’s high reserves. The council asked the library to put together a strategic plan before they would officially place the tax renewal on the ballot. 

Library Director Gabriel Morley told The Lens that he hadn’t heard anything from the council yet in reaction to the plan, which was only released on Tuesday. But he said that the council had been interviewed and consulted through the strategic planning process. 

“NOPL will need to make significant investments utilizing its accumulated fund balance, as well as secure full renewal of its existing millages,” the strategic plan said.

The lack of budget specifics worried one library board member on Tuesday, who pointed to the council’s prior comments on the need to spend down the fund balance.

“I think we need to have a good explanation of what we’re going to do with the money,” board member William Settoon said. “There’s not a dollar sign in there.”

Michelle Thomas, the outside consultant who put the strategic plan together, said that those specifics would come in the annual budget, as well as new “annual operational plans.”

“The 10-year plan is a framework,” she said. “It allows the staff a very long runway in order to have a measurable impact on our community, but we won’t get there without an annual operating plan.”

She said that those annual plans would detail exactly how the library would change and expand to meet the broad goals of the strategic plan. Thomas also said that the first one should be ready, along with the proposed 2022 library budget, before voters head to the polls on Nov. 13, though the council is not required to finalie the budget until Dec. 1, 2021. 

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...