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

New Orleans residents will head to the polls on Saturday to decide whether to renew two existing property taxes that expire at the end of the year — one that brings in roughly $10 million per year for the New Orleans Public Library and another that generates roughly $3.5 million per year for affordable housing and blight alleviation.

The stakes in both elections are high, proponents say. 

For the library, a renewal failure would result in a devastating 54 percent budget cut, causing sweeping service reductions that could include branch closures and layoffs. A successful renewal would allow the library to move forward with its 10-year strategic plan, which includes more funding for childhood and adult literacy programs, digital literacy training, workforce readiness and “reimagining” physical Library buildings to become better community assets. 

“Essentially if it’s approved we’ll be fully funded for the next 20 years,” interim Library Director Emily Painton told The Lens. 

Proponents of the housing tax renewal said the funds are more necessary now than ever, as the coronavirus pandemic and Hurricane Ida exacerbate an already dire affordability crisis. 

“Now would really be the worst time to defund this source of money for affordable housing,” Cashuana Hill, executive director of the Louisiana Fair Housing Action Center, told The Lens. 

“The need is still so great. Rents have increased dramatically, not just over the past few years but just since Hurricane Ida a few months ago. Tourism related jobs still haven’t returned since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic. And New Orleans was already in a housing crisis before the pandemic. So the timing to let this funding lapse would just be awful.”

The proceeds of the housing tax go into the city’s Neighborhood Housing Improvement Fund, or NHIF, which can only be spent on affordable housing and blight alleviation. The fund has been used by the Cantrell administration in recent years to provide rental assistance, assist first time homebuyers, help homeowners recovering from hurricanes and incentivize new housing developments.

Both ballot measures, if successful, would only renew existing taxes, meaning the tax rate would remain the same. If the propositions fail, both taxes will expire at the end of the year, resulting in a tax reduction. The expiration of the library tax would reduce the tax burden on a $375,000 home with a homestead exemption by roughly $77 per year. The expiration of the housing tax would reduce the tax burden on the same home by roughly $27. 

Mayor LaToya Cantrell has taken a relatively hands-off approach to these ballot propositions. Last year, Cantrell unsuccessfully tried to convince voters to approve a plan from her administration that would have renewed both the housing and Library millages, but would have severely cut the Library budget. After voters rejected that plan, the City Council took the lead to renew the taxes.

But although Cantrell has played more of a back-seat role, her administration did come out in support of both propositions earlier this year, and her reelection campaign donated to a political action committee supporting the Library renewal. 

Local advocates have launched campaigns to support both renewals, and neither is facing significant organized opposition. Still, both taxes face obstacles to renewal. 

‘I think people get it, I hope they get it’

The housing tax appears to be the more uncertain of the two. Outgoing City Councilwoman Kristin Palmer, who led the effort to put the housing renewal on the ballot, is hopeful that residents understand the importance of affordable housing spending, but said she’s worried about the unpredictable effects of low voter turnout. Less than a third of New Orleans’ registered voters came out for the November elections

“I think people get it, I hope they get it,” Palmer said. “But this election cycle, people have been totally unengaged. So that’s one of the fears I have. You have historically low numbers going out to vote. And you don’t know what’s going to happen at the voting booth because of that.”

And although there hasn’t been an organized opposition campaign, the housing tax renewal was opposed in a recent report by local government watchdog the Bureau of Governmental Research. The report endorsed the Library tax, but opposed the housing tax, arguing that the city hadn’t put together a specific plan for how it would spend the funds. 

The report conceded that the money raised by the tax wouldn’t be nearly enough to tackle the city’s tremendous affordable housing issues, meaning there was little risk the tax would generate more money than was needed. The report also praised the Cantrell administration’s use of the NHIF fund. Nonetheless, the report argued that the administration should have presented voters with a more comprehensive and detailed housing plan before asking them to renew the tax.

Palmer called the BGR’s opposition “nebulous and silly.” 

She said that the flexibility of the NHIF fund was one of its major strengths. 

“That’s the whole point,” Palmer said.

She argued that flexibility is vital to react quickly and fill the gaps left by federal funding, which can be slow to react to new problems and often comes with strict guidelines for how the money can be used. 

Palmer specifically pointed to a rental assistance program the city set up early into the coronavirus pandemic using NHIF funds. The federal government eventually provided money for rental assistance, but the NHIF allowed the city to react to the problem immediately. And, Palmer said, setting up an initial program with local funds allowed the city to leverage extra federal and state funds by having a program ready to accept and dole out assistance. 

“Because we had this pot of money, because we had that flexibility, we were able to immediately start emergency rental subsidies when people couldn’t pay their rent,” Palmer said. 

Hill also criticized the BGR report. She pointed out that a 2020 BGR report on Cantrell’s failed tax proposal was supportive of the city’s NHIF spending plan. The report opposed Cantrell’s proposal as a whole, in part because of a lack of clear planning. But it singled out NHIF spending as one place where “the City is likely to use the revenue effectively.”

“To varying degrees, there are concerns about the lack of spending plans for the proposed tax dedications,” the report said. “In the case of the housing tax, the City’s existing planning and evaluation processes for potential tax funded projects mitigate this concern.”

Hill said she didn’t understand why BGR went from supporting the city’s NHIF planning last year to opposing it this year. And she pointed out that the city’s Office of Community Development has presented the City Council with broad spending plans for the NHIF twice this year.

“BGR actually has admitted in their report last year that the city has a track record of spending the NHIF revenue effectively,” Hill said. “And the city presented the plan to the council budget committee back in August, and then discussed it again when the office of Community Development presented their budget to the council in November. So the city has presented their plan for spending these dollars.”

‘We are working as one team making sure this millage passes’

The Library, meanwhile, is trying to bounce back from Cantrell’s controversial and somewhat convoluted tax proposal last year. Cantrell’s plan would have renewed several expiring taxes, but the biggest effect would have been on the Library, which would have lost roughly 40 percent of its annual revenue. 

Cantrell’s campaign to convince voters to approve the plan was riddled with false and misleading information. The administration repeatedly told the public that the plan wouldn’t reduce funding for the Library or force reduced services, and overstated the Library’s surplus revenues to argue that it was getting more than it needed.

Adding to the confusion was that the proposition pitted the Library’s administration against community groups that support the library. Library officials joined Cantrell administration press conferences to promote the plan, and produced voter information material that contained many of the misleading talking points offered by Cantrell’s campaign. (The Library director at that time, Gabriel Morley, resigned in November, shortly after allegations surfaced that his primary residence was in Mississippi, rather than New Orleans.)

A grassroots group, the Save Your NOLA Library Coalition, sprung up to oppose the plan. The group included Friends of the New Orleans Public Library, a nonprofit dedicated to supporting the public library system. Ultimately, voters rejected Cantrell’s plan by wide margins. 

Earlier this year, a national expert told the Library’s board that the 2020 tax campaign could hurt the chances of getting full renewal this year, and that the Library would have to work to regain trust with voters. 

The Library has since put together a 10-year strategic plan, in part to allay concerns that the Library will collect more than it can spend. And this year’s campaign to pass the renewal has stressed unity between the Library board, the Save Your NOLA Library Coalition and Friends of NOPL. 

“We are working as one team making sure this millage passes,” board chair Vonda Rice told The Lens. 

Courtney Kearney, a board member of Friends of NOPL and a member of the Save Your NOLA Library Coalition, said the campaign this year has been a true collaboration.

“It’s been really wonderful to work collectively on this, to all be on the same page,” Kearney said. “It’s night and day, quite honestly.”

Both Rice and Kearney said they were confident voters would approve the renewal, but said that nothing was final until ballots were cast on Saturday and urged people to go out and vote.

“We still need to go out and vote,” Rice said. “Regardless of what people are saying, we need people to go out on Dec. 11 and press yes.”

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...