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

New Orleans voters approved a ballot measure to fund the Public Library system on Saturday, but a second tax proposition — to pay for an affordable housing and blight elimination fund — was narrowly defeated.

Property owners have already been paying these taxes for decades, and shouldn’t see any change to their annual tax bill as a result of the renewals. 

Both taxes got support from coalitions of local advocacy groups, along with Mayor LaToya Cantrell and some City Council members. Neither received significant pushback or any organized opposition campaign. 

For the library, the success of the renewal averts a disaster. If the proposition had failed, the library would have seen more than a 50 percent budget cut starting next month, which would have led to potential branch closures and layoffs. The renewal allows the library to avoid that fate, and start pursuing some of the new measures for its 10-year strategic plan, like more literacy programs, digital literacy resources and workforce readiness training. 

The library now finds itself in a much better position than it was facing under a different tax proposition championed by Cantrell last year. Under the plan, the Library tax would be renewed, but at a much lower rate, leading to a roughly 40 percent reduction in tax revenues. 

Cantrell’s campaign to convince voters to approve her plan was littered with false and misleading information that downplayed the devastating effects it would have on the library. Some of the library’s leadership, including the former-director Gabriel Morley, appeared at press conferences and printed voter education materials that echoed those misleading talking points. (Morley resigned in November, shortly after allegations surfaced that his primary residence was in Mississippi, rather than New Orleans.)

But some library board members, employees and supporters wouldn’t get behind Cantrell’s plan, and created the Save Your NOLA Library Coalition to oppose it. Since the tax didn’t expire until the end of 2021, the coalition argued that voters should reject the partial renewal offered by Cantrell and force the city to put a full renewal on the ballot this year. 

Voters soundly rejected Cantrell’s plan. After that, the City Council, rather than Cantrell, took the initiative to place the renewal on this year’s ballot. 

Housing tax rejected

The failure of the housing tax will cause serious concerns among the city’s affordable housing advocates, who argued the funding will be vital as the city faces a dire affordability crisis that’s only been exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic and Hurricane Ida. 

The proceeds from the tax go into the city’s Neighborhood Housing Improvement Fund, or NHIF, which can only be used for affordable housing or blight removal. 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.

Like the library tax, the housing tax received support from Cantrell and a coalition of community groups, and faced no real opposition campaign. The housing tax did, however, took a hit when a report from local government watchdog, the Bureau of Governmental Research, published a report opposing its renewal.

BGR’s opposition to the housing tax was based on what the group deemed to be a lack of adequate planning for how the city will use the money. It also raised concerns about a lack of accounting information provided by the administration, and whether the city was following rules requiring an expert panel to give recommendations for how to spend NHIF funds. 

Housing advocates have severely criticized the report. They point out that the report itself says that funding is sorely needed to address the city’s affordability problems, and that it appeared supportive of how the Cantrell administration utilized the NHIF money in the past. The report also said the tax proceeds wouldn’t be nearly enough to address the city’s entire affordability problem, meaning there was little chance the tax would collect more money than is needed for its dedicated purpose. 

Cantrell administration officials have also pushed back on the report, pointing out that flexibility was one of the major benefits of the fund. They argued that it allows the city to quickly respond to urgent needs where federal funding may be lacking or slow to respond. 

But BGR staff defended the report, saying in a recent article from The Times-Picayune/New Orleans Advocate, saying the group was not against funding for affordable housing but rather determined that the city had failed to outline a sufficient plan for how it would be best used. 

“The report also found critical deficiencies in the city’s planning and accountability for the housing tax that undermine its potential effectiveness,” BGR Vice President Stephen Stuart said. 

The tax renewal was defeated by a narrow margin. As of 11 p.m. on Saturday, with only a handful of precincts outstanding, no votes outnumbered yes votes 51 percent to 49 percent.

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...