In The News › Stephanie Grace: Why you should look at Saturday’s Orleans Parish election results and feel cheerful

Stephanie Grace: Why you should look at Saturday’s Orleans Parish election results and feel cheerful

By Stephanie Grace

The Advocate

May 5, 2015

Every now and then you’ve got to look at an election’s results and feel cheerful. In Orleans Parish, Saturday was just such a day.

People who understand the vital role libraries play, for the community in general and those with limited resources in particular, turned out in force to adopt a 2.5 mill, 25-year property tax. The vote means the system will not only be able to keep all its libraries open, but also open all branch libraries on Fridays and in some cases even Sundays, and finally get the last remaining Hurricane Katrina-damaged facility, the Nora Navra branch in the 7th Ward, back online (the system has FEMA money for reconstruction, but until the millage passed it had no room in the budget to operate the branch). Voters approved the tax by a whopping 75-25 percent margin. That, my friends, is a statement.

And six months after rejecting pretty much the same proposition, voters on Saturday also approved a complicated ballot proposition that will allow a tax now dedicated to construction debt to be used for badly needed — not to mention federally mandated — improvements to operations at Orleans Parish Prison.

This one was a much harder sell, given a distinct lack of public confidence in Sheriff Marlin Gusman’s stewardship. Unlike the library tax, it passed by a hair, just 52-48 percent. Yet the voters who provided the winning margin clearly understand that the city has no choice, either legally or morally, over whether to meet the terms of a federal consent decree that calls for better staffing and access to medical and mental health care for inmates. A “yes” vote was the better of two unappealing choices.

The two votes together, in combination with last year’s sound rejection of a 50-year millage to support the privatized Audubon Commission, paint the picture of a mature electorate that’s willing to invest in vital priorities — if someone makes a good case.

Library leaders and supporters, including Mayor Mitch Landrieu, a coalition of past and present city first ladies and members of the City Council, did just that. They assembled embarrassing statistics showing how little public support New Orleans libraries get compared to other parishes, other major Southern cities and even some of the most beleaguered cities across the country — places like Detroit and Gary, Indiana. They publicized all the services the libraries provide, including Internet access for people who need to apply online for jobs. They explained how they got to this difficult point, what would happen if the millage didn’t pass and what they hoped to do if it did.

In doing so, they effectively countered an uncharacteristically weak Bureau of Governmental Research report that argued that the library didn’t have enough of a strategic plan. BGR said it supports funding of libraries but recommended a “no” vote, arguing that the libraries could always try again. That would have been an awfully big risk to take with such an important city resource.

Backers of the OPP measure made a strong argument as well, in effect suggesting that voters hold their noses while they cast their ballots. This time, proponents included BGR, which wrote that it supported the tax “only because it is clear that the public will have to directly or indirectly provide additional revenue to implement the costly court-ordered reforms at the parish prison.”

Audubon officials and backers of that 2014 millage request, in contrast, made a lousy case, and the voters responded accordingly.

Advocates ran a deliberately low-key — and arguably sneaky — campaign that sought to tap into the public’s warm fuzzy feelings toward the zoo and aquarium. But they never fully explained what they would do with the money, why they sought to extend the tax seven years before an existing one was set to expire, or why they should be allowed to lock in 50 years’ worth of revenue. Even worse, the election’s timing came across as an attempt by the well-heeled agency to go to the head of the line, to secure Audubon’s money before voters were asked to fund other, arguably more central priorities — the libraries, police and fire and so on.

There wasn’t much public discussion of this one, and some major players, including BGR, took no position. But a grass-roots social media opposition campaign clearly tapped into a widespread unease, and the tax went down in flames.

That result could have had a chilling effect on officials who knew they’d have to seek public support for other needs, and library backers were understandably nervous before Saturday’s vote.

In hindsight, they needn’t have been. As with the Audubon vote, the voters turned out to be smarter than many people thought.

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