In The News › BGR report wrong on New Orleans library tax, library director says

BGR report wrong on New Orleans library tax, library director says

By Richard Rainey

NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune

April 8, 2015

New Orleans’ public libraries are essential to teaching a woefully undereducated population, and their mission cannot be accomplished without enough money to run and expand their reach, said Charles Brown, executive director of the New Orleans Public Library.

“An educated population is one of the most important things a community can give to itself,” Brown said.

Brown was responding to a report released Wednesday (April 8) by the government watchdog Bureau of Governmental Research that criticized the library’s push for voter approval of a 2.5-mill tax hike on the May 2 ballot.

The report questioned the tax proposal coming at a time when City Hall is likely to ask voters and property owners to raise taxes or pay more in fees to cover myriad other priorities, including the rising costs of public safety and repairs to the city’s crumbling infrastructure. It also accused the library department of not having a clear plan for spending the money should voters approve its collection.

The proposed tax, which could take effect next year and expire in 2040, would raise an estimated $7 million to $8.25 million annually. That would be in addition to an 3.14-mill tax already in place that raises about $8.7 million each year. The two taxes combined would increase the contribution of an owner of a $300,000 house from $71.94 a year to $126.76 for public libraries.

Without that financial boost, the library will burn through any remaining reserves it saved after Hurricane Katrina by 2016, Brown said. It costs roughly $12 million a year, even with closing on Sunday and Friday and shortened weekday hours, to keep its 14 branches operating.

And the library’s mission of public education is just as essential as other city and social services, he said.

“I know we have many challenges we face. But if you talk with anyone in the criminal justice system, they will tell you that a majority of our prison population is functionally illiterate,” Brown said, arguing that reading and access to learning resources can boost employment and cut crime rates.

Brown said library officials’ goals are to maintain the system’s footprint in the city while increasing the hours its branches are open and providing more services aimed at public education. He bristled at the BGR report’s accusation that the department wasn’t following a strategic plan, saying one was drawn up more than a year ago before officials knew whether the council would settle on a millage amount.

The tax hike, Brown said, would guarantee the library department would have enough money to open and operate the long-closed Nora Navra branch in the 7th Ward, the last remaining casualty of the flooding that followed the 2005 levee breaches. He said FEMA has money set aside for its reconstruction.

It would also allow the library staff to increase operating hours 30 percent, keep branches open seven days a week, improve preschool reading services, help adults with job applications and buy more books and computers, he said.

“We need a sustainable funding source for our library to stabilize our current footprint and expand our service to the community,” Brown said.

The BGR report also criticized library officials for using the most dramatic outcome — the closure of seven of its branches — as impetus for voters to approved the tax hike when other cost-cutting options could be pursued. Brown acknowledged that the library system had options, but none of them would be good ones.

“There is no definitive plan at this point, but we would lose 25 or 26 percent of our funding and there would be a visible reaction to that,” he said.

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