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Ahead of December vote, New Orleans library head says tax renewal is needed to maintain budget

A tax renewal for the New Orleans Public Library that would impact the department’s budget for the next year and its ability to afford new projects will soon be up for vote, the library’s director said Monday during the beginning of city budget discussions.

Gabriel Morley, the director of the NOPL system, was one of the first department heads to speak in front of the City Council, who began their three-week discourse on the city’s 2022 budget Monday. The millage will be up for vote on Dec. 11, which would rake in $11 million for the library system, more than half of the proposed $21 million NOPL budget for 2022.

"The early information we have indicates that we're going to have a very positive result for this millage," Morley said.

The Secretary of State has not published a finalized ballot for the measure, which comes nearly a year after Mayor LaToya Cantrell authored a proposal to cut the library’s funds by $7.5 million. That proposal was voted down by Orleans Parish residents, with almost 57% of the vote.

The Dec. 11 vote will also impact if the library can expand or move to new locations. Councilmember Cyndi Nguyen questioned Morley on the Martin Luther King Jr. Library in the Lower Ninth Ward, which has been a complaint among residents who say the facility shares a building and its resources with an elementary school.

Morley said that he knew of the complaints and has a new location planned for a library in that neighborhood, but is waiting for the outcome of the millage before making a final decision. Nguyen pressed Morley for more information, and begrudgingly, the library leader let it slip that the new location would be several blocks away from the current one, a spot near the base of the St. Claude Avenue Bridge. Nguyen responded by claiming she would drum up support for the millage rate in her district.

"The Lower Nine has always expressed that there's a need for an independent library for the families out there," Nguyen said.

The library has continued to serve the public throughout the pandemic by focusing on three categories, Morley said, with its main focus being on early childhood literacy.

The library is adding roles to its early literacy staff and is reaching out to local schools and early education centers to provide books and resources if they are needed. During the pandemic, Morley said over 4,300 children had attended the library's virtual reading camps.

"Every study that's been done demonstrates that if you invest in education, you won't have to waste money on incarceration," said Councilmember Jay Banks, who called the millage rate critical for the city's children.

The library also has programs committed to improving the city's adult literacy rate and workforce readiness. That includes the continuation of an open door outreach program with the Office of Business and External Services, which aids residents with several municipal commissions.

Morley said the library is expanding on current sites in New Orleans East, Algiers and Gentilly to include offices for OBES officials to meet with library patrons. The NOPL is also trying to finalize a contract with the District Attorney's Office with the same concept of bringing government closer to the public.

The OBES offices can help residents fill out forms and apply to different divisions of city government, including Safety & Permits, Code Enforcement, Workforce Development, Economic Development, City Planning Commission, Historic District Landmarks Commission and the Vieux Carré Commission. The facilities also allow patrons to talk to officials who can aid them with access to the internet and navigate the city's website.

The NOPL still has not re-opened two of its facilities since COVID-19 shuttered in-person business, but said they are close to reopening both soon. The Alvar Library in the Bywater is currently undergoing maintenance but contactless options are available, said Jane LeGros, the director of marketing and communications for NOPL.

Morey also told the council that Nix Library on Carrollton Avenue should reopen before Christmas. The site closed due to COVID-19 and construction, and the re-opening has been delayed by rain and foundation issues found by a contractor.

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