On the Ballot

Tax to fund New Orleans library on Saturday’s ballot; here’s what it would pay for

By Jessica Williams

Source: The Times-Picayune | The New Orleans Advocate

December 10, 2021

New Orleans voters will decide Saturday whether to renew a tax that largely funds the city’s public library system, roughly a year after they rejected a tax plan that would have cut library funding.

The 4-mill tax on Saturday’s ballot would provide up to $17 million per year to the library for the next two decades, provided the full amount is levied by the City Council after its approval. If officials only levy 2.58 mills, as the library is recommending, it would provide the library with about $11 million per year.

Library officials say the funds would help them implement a 10-year strategic plan they released in the fall, invest in early-childhood literacy programs, and to provide more programs for teenagers, among other goals.

“The millage renewal accounts for approximately 54 percent of our budget,” said Emily Painton, who was named interim head of the New Orleans Public Library in November. “A renewal means that the library would be able to move forward on a path of success.”

Voters are being asked to preserve library funding a year after they rejected a controversial plan by Mayor LaToya Cantrell to divert about $7 million of the library’s revenue to affordable housing, early childhood education and other priorities.

Though Cantrell’s team said the library could use its $13.3 million reserve to fill its budget gaps, the move incensed the library’s supporters, who launched a successful campaign to kill the measure.

This year, the mayor refrained from proposing any millage plans. But the City Council agreed in July to put the renewal on the December ballot, noting the public’s earlier resistance to the idea of yanking library funds.

“We have the full support of the City Council, and the library worked really hard in the spring to pull together a strategic plan that is cohesive and addresses what the community wants and needs,” said Courtney Kearney, the vice president of Friends of the New Orleans Public Library, a nonprofit that raises money to support the library’s operations.

In recent weeks, Kearney’s group and another, the Save Your NOLA Libraries Coalition, has canvassed, hosted phone banks and attended community meetings to educate voters about the proposal. She said reaction to the plan has largely been positive, especially since it amounts to no additional taxes for residents.

If the tax is renewed and the council holds it steady at 2.58 mills, as the library recommends, property owners will continue to pay $25.80 per year on each $100,000 of property value above the city’s $75,000 homestead exemption, according to an analysis from the Bureau of Governmental Research, which came out in support of the measure.

For example, the owner of a homestead-exempt property valued at $420,000 would pay about $89.01 per year.

If the council levies the tax at the maximum 4 mills authorized under the proposal, homeowners would pay an additional $14.20 on each $100,000 of property value above the exemption, beginning next year. Though the existing tax is authorized at 4 mills, the city has not levied that amount since 2008.

The full 4 mills can’t be collected without the approval of the library’s board and city officials, Painton said.

If the tax does not pass, the library plans to shave off about $5 million from its operating budget by reducing hours, cutting back on book purchases and putting off some of the initiatives in its strategic plan.

Though the library could rely on its fund balance for about three years to avoid further cuts, that reserve would be exhausted by 2025. At that point, the library would need to close some of its 15 branches, officials have said.

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