If May 2 is marked on your calendar, it's probably because it's the second Saturday of the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival. Jazz Fest attendees that day will have dozens of cultural riches from which to choose. But that day you'll also have the chance to support another source of cultural riches: the New Orleans Public Library (NOPL).
Hurricane Katrina and the federal floods destroyed six of New Orleans' branch libraries. In 2012, five rebuilt branches opened to the public in Broadmoor, Lake- view, Gentilly, New Orleans East and Algiers — with much of the funding coming from FEMA, block grants and bonds.
In 1986, New Orleans voters funded NOPL via a 4-mill (soon bumped to 4.32 mills) property tax dedicated to libraries. That millage dropped to 3.14 mills after Katrina, and NOPL began using its reserve funds to keep up with operating expenses — about $3 million per year. That money is set to run out in 2016.
On that Jazz Fest Saturday, voters will be asked to approve another millage hike for NOPL: this time from 3.14 to 5.19 mills. This is a very modest increase.
NOPL Director Charles Brown says the small investment will allow all libraries to begin providing six- or seven-day-a-week access. It also will fund the reopening of the 7th Ward's Nora Navra Library. Without the added millage, library hours (which have never gotten back to where they were before the storm) will be cut by more than one-third — and seven library branches will be forced to close.
This isn't Chicken Little stuff. In early March, state budget cuts left the State Library of Louisiana open only 16 hours a week. Without the new millage, the cuts here could be equally disastrous. New Orleans already pays less per capita for library support than any of its neighboring parishes. In fact, New Orleans spends about half of what Detroit and Gary, Indiana spend on their libraries per capita. The city's redevelopment won't mean much if New Orleans must close nearly half its libraries.
A public library pays dividends far beyond access to books. Most job searches and applications now happen online, and libraries offer public Internet terminals. According to NOPL, more than 373,000 people used its computers last year. Libraries also are the vanguards of literacy education in a city where 70 percent of residents read below the eighth-grade level, according to the Lindy Boggs National Center for Community Literacy. Moreover, libraries give kids safe places to study, read, listen to music and expand their minds. Last year, 7,000 kids participated in summer reading programs.
We urge our readers to support this millage to keep public libraries open, healthy and growing.
We raise this issue now because the window for registering to vote in the May election closes this week — on April 1. Registration is easy and available online (www.geauxvote.com), in person or by mail. Early voting runs April 18 through 25, so there's plenty of time to support local public libraries without having to worry about voting on the busy second weekend of Jazz Fest.
Saving our public libraries is a vote that is too important to miss. Encourage your friends to vote. For more information, visit www.neworleanspubliclibrary.org/millage/millage.htm.