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Former YMCA Literacy Director Makes Case Against Cutting Library Funding

As voters head to the polls tomorrow, one of the big questions here in New Orleans is whether residents will support a package of three property tax bills that are on the ballot.

The package has faced significant criticism, particularly from those opposed to Proposition 2 which would reallocate 40 percent of the public library system’s property tax collections to fund other city services.

Shannan Cvitanovic with Save Your NOLA Library Coalition. They’re urging voters to reject the proposition.

The following is a fact-checked transcript of their conversation. (Fact-checked statements have been italicized.)

Proposition 2 has become increasingly controversial and critics have said Mayor LaToya Cantrell’s administration has been pushing misleading information. You can read a fact-checked transcript of New Orleans Public Radio’s interview with Cantrell here.

Karl Lengel: Let's start with the big question. Why does your group, Save Your NOLA Library Coalition, see Proposition 2 as a threat to the current library system?

Shannan Cvitanovic: Well, first of all, I think the coalition sees the public library for what it is: a public good that serves anyone and everyone in our community, from children to adults to seniors, all 100 percent free.

You know, it's a public good that we want to keep available and we feel that Proposition 2, you know, it's a measure that would cut the New Orleans Public Library’s budget by 40 percent for the next 20 years. I realize there's a lot of discussion about how some of the funding would also go to early childhood education. But to be honest with you, Karl, the New Orleans Public Library cannot possibly sustain a 40 percent cut for the next 20 years. That is not possible. That would do so much to cut down on the hours that we have at the New Orleans Public Library, the great programming and the availability, you know, that the public has to these services.

I feel I can speak to that because, for 10 years, I was the director of adult literacy programs that were housed at the New Orleans Public Library. I was working for the YMCA of Greater New Orleans at the time. But through a partnership with New Orleans Public Library, our services were offered for free in branches of the library. And I've been a library goer since I was a child and I've always loved libraries. But it wasn't until I was in the library buildings day after day that I really understood the breadth and depth of the services that librarians offered. I would see people coming to the library saying things like, “I have a job available. The man at the grocery store told me, I have a job. I just need to get online and fill out the application.” But that person didn't have a computer at home, so they would come into the library to do it.

People would come in looking for help learning English, looking for help getting citizenship, homeschoolers looking for information, people needing health information. Any time people wanted information or assistance they knew where to go and that was the friendly librarians at New Orleans Public Library. That is why they are there. It's 100 percent free, open to everyone. I believe that we have got to keep the doors open and expand more, not limit it.

Fact-check: If Proposition 2 passes it will reduce the library’s annual budget by 40 percent. The millage proposal is good for 20 years, though that doesn’t mean it couldn’t be replaced sooner. The city’s current millage package is technically good for another year. That hasn’t stopped them from trying to pass a new package now.

Whether or not the library can handle a 40 percent cut is a separate issue. City officials claim the library is currently overfunded and can absorb the cut without laying off staff or reducing library services. New Orleans Public Library Director Gabriel Morley has echoed these claims.

But library advocates disagree. About 75 percent of the library’s budget goes toward paying its employees. They argue it's impossible to absorb a 40 percent cut without laying off staff — and fewer staff members equal fewer services.

You've made some good points, but there's a bigger picture here. There are a lot of city employees, it's not just librarians that we're dealing with. There are other city employees and the mayor threatened yesterday that if the furloughed employees don't see the benefit of this vote, they're going to be laid off. Is it not fair to look at the whole picture and say, maybe the library does have to take some cuts in the situation that we're dealing with right now?

I understand what we're dealing with with Covid and of course, there can be things that every city department can do to tighten their belts. However, a 40 percent cut to the library over 20 years is too much to ask. I think it's disproportionate. I don't see any other city agency being asked to reduce their budget by so much for 20 years.

And to me, it's irresponsible to commit to a 20 year cut. I understand Covid times are challenging and over the next few years it will take us a while to dig out of this. But 40 percent is too much to ask and we are risking losing too much if we cut the library budget by so much.

Fact-check: This is true. City agencies have been asked to reduce their budgets by 20 percent due to the financial impacts of COVID-19.

The city argues a 40 percent cut makes sense for the library since it's been overfunded since voters approved a new tax that nearly doubled the system’s funding five years ago. The library does have a reserve fund of $14.5 million, but it’s picked up its spending in recent years. In 2018 and 2019 the library spent just over 97 percent of its budget.

There are going to be some drastic cuts. I understand that. But the reserve is going to soften that for a while. And 20 years is a long time. Historically, over the last 20 years, there have been changes to the millage. Just four or five years ago, the library benefited from an increase and it actually helped them out a little bit.

I think we have a staff now roughly of 200 people in the library system. With a lot of the technology that's coming along and the changes that are happening because of that, aren't there some opportunities, as the Mayor has suggested, to look at the way we do things now and change?

I've heard that a few times from people who say we need to rethink how the public library serves the public. We need to rethink how we're delivering services. What I would say is this, if you are inside the public library and you see who is walking in, you understand that librarians and library staff spend the majority of their time dealing with the public, assisting the public and helping the public.

What 70 percent of the library's budget is going towards is staff costs. That's because this is the public library. And let's underscore, public people are walking in the door asking for help getting jobs, asking for help finding out information. That cannot be outsourced. You can't put all of that online. The public library is a public benefit and you need people to do that work.

I understand that there are some things that can go online and to be honest, Karl that's already been done since the last millage in 2015. What I've seen is New Orleans Public Library bringing so much online. People can download audio books. You know, they have so many educational resources online. But at the end of the day, a public library is a community space where people can walk in and get the assistance they need, particularly those in our community who are the least served, who are underserved, who need assistance with the Internet, who don't have a computer at home, even if they had one, wouldn't know how to use it.

I appreciate that there are things that can be computerized, but at the end of the day, it is a public library and it serves people and we need people to serve people.

Fact-check: It’s actually closer to 75 percent. In terms of building out online resources, the library mentioned this as a goal in its 2017-2019 Strategic Plan. If you visit the library website today you can access a complete library of e-books as well as other e-resources.

You're talking about literary services. If those don't go away and the city funds those in a different way and maybe they go to a community center rather than a library, are we not still addressing the needs of literacy? Maybe making the library, or asking the library not making, but asking them to focus a little bit more on content access. I mean, when you think about essential services, the library is there so that people can get that. As you mentioned at the beginning, free access to written and reading material. Is the city not just saying we're rather than having the library take this service, can we not find another way to do it through community organizations? Isn't that not a possibility in all of this?

What I would say is, first of all, libraries are community centers. They are the hubs of our community, particularly in these days where we have children who are being sent all over the city to different schools. It is that one hub that you have in your neighborhood that is truly a community center.

Second, librarians are already doing this work and they're already doing it well. Let them continue to do that.

Third, I would defy you to find another community organization, another city department that is so trusted by the community at large. I would see people, and I was housed at the New Orleans Public Library, walking in and asking librarians for assistance with everything from health questions to questions about how to deal with challenges at home, you know, physical violence, what have you. Some things that are very personal, that they had faith and trust that the librarian would steer them in the right direction.

I do not see outsourcing that to another agency. People trust the library. They've been going to the libraries for years. If I were the Mayor, I would want to capitalize on this one city agency that has the overwhelming support of the public and the trust of the people. Support the library. Don't cut it.

It's an interesting thing because I'm thinking about a librarian and getting the training that's required to be a librarian. I was not aware that sociology and psychology would eventually become part of it. But that seems to be what you're seeing, is that they're functioning to some degree as community sociologists and job placement areas?

Karl, anywhere where people fall through the cracks, that is where the library is going to step into the breach. What happens when we have a natural disaster? People go to the libraries in the communities where they've evacuated to get assistance with FEMA, to get assistance with insurance.

How many times have I heard people say I went to try to fill out an application for housing and there was a note on the door that said, “Go to the library for help.” I think the library in a lot of ways papers over some of the cracks in our social service system and they function in a way as a catchall. When anyone has a challenge or some trouble, they know they can go to the library for assistance.

And I think you're right. I think people perhaps enter library services because they love books and they love reading and that's fine. You might come for the books, but you have to stay for the people because of the day. It is a public facing job. And, you know, I'm very happy with what I see at the public library. You know, the professionalism, the training that the librarians have and just how they make their patrons feel.

A couple of months ago, I was walking my seven-year-old niece in front of her neighborhood branch that we haven't been able to visit since Covid. And she just looked at the building and she said, “I bet our librarians miss us.”

I'm so glad that she feels that way, that she feels when she walks into a library, there's someone who's looking out for her who is encouraging her. I know I felt the same way when I was a child. You know, I can remember walking into the library and having a librarian look at me and saying “I'm always excited to see what you're going to check out.”

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