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Voters Reject City's Tax Propositions With Rallying Cry 'Save Our Libraries'

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Mayor LaToya Cantrell’s plan to restructure property tax dedications failed Saturday when voters rejected the city’s millage proposal, which would have reduced the public library’s funding by 40 percent.

The proposal, which appeared on the ballot in the form of three propositions, shifted tax rates related to infrastructure, housing, libraries and economic development while keeping the overall property tax the same.

Cantrell urged residents to vote on the propositions together. With consistent results across the propositions, it appears voters did consider the propositions as a package — a package they didn’t want. Fifty-six percent of voters rejected Propositions 1 and 3, and 57 percent of voters rejected Proposition 2.

Fearing for the library’s future, several groups were formed in opposition to Proposition 2, which would have reduced the library’s tax revenue, while also creating a dedicated source of funding for the city’s early childcare program.

Andrea Neighbours, a current library board member, has been vocally opposed to Proposition 2 since it was unveiled this summer. She said Saturday’s election results should be seen as “an overwhelming mandate to have a strong, robust public library system.”

“I think that the message is strong and clear and that the leaders of this city should hear that message and come together and come up with a solution that ensures continued funding for the library for the next 20 years,” Neighbours said.

The city argued the library could absorb a 40 percent cut without laying off staff or reducing services due to the system’s fund balance. Library advocates like Neighbours saw the cut as unsustainable and a threat to the library’s ability to provide for the public, particularly low-income families that rely on their local branches for a variety of services.

“I would defy you to find another community organization, another city department that is so trusted by the community at large,” Shannon Cvitanovic, a member of Save Your NOLA Library Coalition, told New Orleans Public Radio in an interview Friday.

While the city assumed the millages would pass easily, even claiming to have baked them into the 2021 budget, they were met with resistance early. And it only increased as the election drew closer.

Government watchdog groups, like the Bureau for Government Research, said the plan lacked accountability and transparency. In some cases, details weren’t fleshed out, making it impossible for the voter to really know what they were voting for. Other propositions required the later approval of additional ordinances by the city council.

Cantrell was accused of misleading the public and the city faced criticism for promoting the propositions on its official social media accounts and in press releases. It is against state law to use public funds to "urge any elector to vote for or against any candidate or proposition." 

While library advocates are breathing a sigh of relief, the city must now find a way to rework the 2021 budget. Cantrell said earlier this week that if the tax proposal failed, she would be forced to lay off city employees. 

New Orleans is facing a $100 million budget shortfall due to the coronavirus pandemic, and city employees have been furloughed one day per pay period through the end of the year. During a virtual town hall meeting Thursday, Cantrell said the move from furloughs to layoffs was “not a threat at all; it’s a harsh reality.”

Despite all this, it’s unclear why layoffs would be inevitable. Both a draft budget for 2021 and the final budget passed by the City Council use the current property tax rates, not the proposed millages, according to reporting by The Lens.

The future of the city’s early childcare program is similarly up in the air. Without dedicated funding from Proposition 2, the city said they would have to cut the program in half for the coming year.

Early childhood advocates, some of Proposition 2’s biggest supporters, said prior to the vote that if it failed, they hoped the city would find a way to secure funding elsewhere.

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