“We Are in Crisis Mode.” Cantrell Administration Would Slash New Orleans Public Library Funding for 20 Years


The Mid-City branch of the New Orleans Public Library system. Courtesy of the New Orleans Public Library.

Despite requesting city departments to reduce spending by 20 percent to brace for coronavirus-related revenue shortfalls, the Cantrell Administration has proposed massive cuts to the New Orleans Public Library. The Administration would not only let an existing library millage expire but also reduce an additional millage approved in 2015.

The additional reduction would potentially depress library funding for a generation. The 2015 public library millage, approved by 75 percent of voters, is in effect until 2040. Under the new allocation, these taxes reserved exclusively for the library would be slashed by 40 percent, reducing the library’s operating fund by as much as $7.5 million

This is but one of a package of millages set to expire on December 31, 2021. And because there is no other proposal to fund the library, the library could stand to lose even more money – as much as $10 million each year – if the millage is not approved. 

Under the city’s millage renewal plan, several departments that are slated to lose tax income would receive additional funding. This includes the Economic Development fund (an increase from 0 mills in 2020 to 1.164 mills), the Neighborhood Housing Improvement Fund (an increase from 0.91 mills in 2020 to 1.05 mills) and infrastructure programs (an increase from 2.33 mills in 2020 to 2.619). However, the public library would see a sharp millage decrease – from 2.58 mills in 2020 to 0.987 mills. 

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A graph of the proposed millage allocation for 2021. Courtesy of the City of New Orleans.

The biggest change would be to allocate an additional $4.5 million to the city’s economic development fund. The other changes would be nominal increases of about $1 million to infrastructure and the Neighborhood Housing Improvement Fund.

The rest of the money – being touted as a tax cut – would result in about $18 dollars less in property taxes per year for a home assessed at $200,000. 

Under the millage reallocation, a property assessed at $200,000 would receive a $18 tax cut each year. Courtesy of the City of New Orleans.

The Cantrell Administration’s Chief Administrative Officer Gilbert Montaño noted that the New Orleans Public Library system spends 11 percent less than its tax income each year on average, and that it has a reserve of $11.6 million. However, this revenue measure would go far further than an 11 percent cut.

Montaño, in his presentation, only said that there would be no library closures “in the near future.” He also asserted a need for the library to “re-imagine services and operations based on our new normal.” 

Chief Administrative Officer Gilbert Montaño could only say that no libraries would close “in the near future,” and that the libraries would need to “re-imagine services.” Courtesy of the City of New Orleans.

Seventy-five percent of the library’s expenses are personnel costs, putting the jobs of 223 library system employees in a precarious position. 

20 percent of school age New Orleanians do not have access to WiFi internet. To address this disparity, New Orleans Public Library has planned to open up three community learning hubs for students to learn in a safe, quiet, and supervised environment. 

In response to the plan to slash library services, NOLA.com reported that close to 390 residents submitted public comments, with near unanimous opposition.

Gabriel Morley, the city’s chief librarian, said in a conference call that “the library will not be able to operate at its current level” if it is forced to operate on a fraction of its funding. 

In a statement to the public, executive director of Friends of the New Orleans Public Library Dixon Stetler decried the measure. “The issue is not about budget cuts. A 40% reduction in the annual budget for 20 years would absolutely debilitate the library. Other City agencies are also being cut, but the percentages or time lengths aren’t close to comparable with proposed cuts to the Library budget.” 

Stetler also said that the city is punishing the library for not spending all of its income. “The library is being penalized for being good financial stewards,” noting that the library learned after Hurricane Katrina that rainy day reserves were vital. “The library is NOT over-funded.” 

The New Orleans City Council will vote on this measure, Regular Agenda Item 61 Thursday, August 20, and public comments are due by 9am. 

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To read the statement made by Friends of the New Orleans Public Library, click here.

To submit a public comment on the matter, click here.

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