The Baton Rouge Library system appears headed for trouble trying to get a higher tax millage on the October ballot because a majority of Metro Council members are questioning the need.
The library’s tax is 10.78 mills, but the Library Board of Control voted Thursday to ask for an 11.1-mill property tax in next fall’s election. The vote was unexpected, as Metro Council members have pressured the library to lower its tax and the library at first appeared willing to do so.
Library Board members said they were persuaded by the public to keep investing money into the library system, and they decided to ask voters to approve a higher property tax that would generate about an extra $1.2 million a year.
Voters approved 11.1 mills for the library in both 2005 and 1995, but the number was rolled back to its current 10.78 mills level as property values rose.
Backlash from Metro Council members was immediate, and several have threatened to block the property tax from going on ballots. The Metro Council has final say over the size of the library’s property tax, and the members have the ability to cut the tax as they see fit.
“If they’re going to ask for an increase, they should come and talk to the people who appointed them first,” Councilman Trae Welch said. “As a taxpayer, I’m offended.”
Baton Rouge residents with $150,000 homes that are subject to homestead exemption pay $80.85 a year for library taxes, while those with $200,000 homes pay $134.75 a year for the library, according to the Assessor’s Office. If the tax increase goes through, bills will rise to $83.25 for owners of $150,000 homes and $138.75 for owners of $200,000 homes.
“They didn’t come to us telling us there was any crisis, so I don’t know who’s pushing that,” Councilwoman C. Denise Marcelle said. “I couldn’t possibly imagine giving them an increase.”
Councilmen Scott Wilson and John Delgado and Mayor Pro Tem Chandler Loupe agreed. Councilman Ryan Heck has adamantly requested that the library lower its tax, saying the system has too much money.
“Based on last year’s budget, and the amount of reserves they have, I can’t imagine why they felt a tax increase is justified,” Loupe said.
The Baton Rouge library system has expanded and improved rapidly in the last 10 years, with the additions of a new Main Library and money being set aside for a new downtown River Center Branch and a South Branch. But Library Board members said they wanted to ensure a prosperous next decade for the library as well, which would come in the form of renovations to older libraries in the system.
Not all Library Board members agreed, and the vote was split 4-2, with one absent.
Many Metro Council members have questioned the library system’s large fund balance, saying it shows they already are taking in more tax dollars than they actually need.
But Mary Stein, assistant library director, noted that much of the library system’s $66 million cash balance has been earmarked for six projects. Among them are construction of the new River Center Branch Library for around $19 million and the construction of the South Branch Library, plus money for new floors and improvements to other libraries. The cash balance also includes millions of dollars set aside for the library’s $1 million insurance deductible and storm reserve money, she said.
Stein said the library has $30 million that has not been designated for a specific purpose and that the money is used for the library’s monthly operations bills.
“We are not even close to being one of the highest agencies on the tax rolls. All anyone has to do to see what the tax rolls generate is to look at their tax bill in December and then add up the numbers for those entities who have more than one tax,” Stein said. She said they are reviewing all of their numbers in light of the vote for the 11.1-mill tax.
Library Director Spencer Watts said the staff recommendation for the library’s tax was a small tax decrease to 10.7 mills. It would have given them more than $12 million for improvements to the libraries and a $1.4 million surplus in its cash balance by 2025.
Council members Joel Boé, Donna Collins-Lewis and Tara Wicker said they were undecided on their votes.
Boé said he hoped that the library would reduce its tax but said he would have to comb through its budget before making up his mind.
“On one hand, I feel like we should let the community vote on it and they’re going to prove whether they want it or not,” he said. “But on the other hand, I don’t want it to fail either and the library be left with nothing.”
Collins-Lewis and Wicker also said they needed to do more research. They said they hoped to gain a better understanding of why the library wants the extra money, what it would be used for and how much more money taxpayers would have to shell out.
Only one Metro Council member, Ronnie Edwards, has come out in strong support of the library. She said she will absolutely support the higher tax. She said she does not view it as a tax increase because voters approved 11.1 mills last time around.
Edwards complimented the library system’s “best practices” including its pay-as-you-go system of paying for projects rather than bonding them out.
“If every other department did the same thing, we would save millions of dollars without having to bond those projects,” she said.
She said libraries are especially important in her district, which includes parts of north Baton Rouge.
Staff Writer Rebekah Allen contributed to this report.