Library tax expected to be up before Metro Council on Wednesday _lowres


Two months after Baton Rouge library system leaders voted to put a higher property tax millage before the voters, Metro Council members are expected to get their say Wednesday, deciding what voters will see on the ballot next fall.

The Library Board of Control’s March vote to slightly increase the system’s current tax rate was a surprise, as it came on the heels of some council members calling for the library to reduce its millage, which brings in about $40 million annually. Several council members immediately denounced the move, saying it was a bad idea at a time when they are scraping to find resources for other priorities.

Since then, board members and library staffers have tried to make their case, giving detailed presentations to the council about their budget and reserves.

The spotlight on Baton Rouge’s dedicated taxes will continue on Thursday, when the board for Baton Rouge’s parks and recreation commission will decide whether to “roll forward” its tax rate to collect an additional $936,998. Unlike with the library, the BREC board doesn’t need Metro Council approval.

Both library and BREC leaders have said their measures should not be considered tax increases, as the organizations would just be collecting taxes at rates the voters have approved for them in the past.

Voters have twice approved the 11.1 mills for the library, voting for that rate in 2005 and 1995. Since then, the library board reduced the rate to 10.78 mills to account for higher property values.

BREC commissioners had also reduced their tax rate over the years, from the voter-approved 14.463 mills to 14.218 mills. In 2012, they voted against rolling the tax forward and increasing it to the maximum amount, but staff members have asked them to reconsider this year, saying the extra money is needed to maintain the more than 180 parks while adding features like trails that voters have requested.

Baton Rouge residents with $200,000 properties with homestead exemptions pay $134.75 a year for the library, according to the Assessor’s Office. If the tax increase goes through, bills would rise to $138.75.

Baton Rouge residents with $200,000 homes that qualify for homestead exemption pay $177.73 a year in property taxes for BREC. If the roll forward is approved, those homeowners would pay $180.79 a year.

The Metro Council, which has the library tax on its Wednesday agenda, has the final authority over how high of a property tax the library system can ask for from voters, and the Council can set it at any level they want. A split Library Board voted in March to recommend 11.1 mills as the property tax it wanted from voters.

That move came after Metro Councilman Ryan Heck repeatedly criticized the library’s spending and called on the library to lower its tax. Heck, along with Councilman John Delgado, floated the idea that a smaller library tax could make room for a new mental health tax without increasing the overall bottom line for taxpayers.

The majority of Library Board members bucked that notion, saying they not only didn’t want to shave the library’s tax rate, but going back to 11.1 mills was necessary for the library system to maintain its 14 branches and renovate ones that haven’t seen recent repairs. Since then, library staffers have held multiple meetings to educate the Metro Council on how their budget works and why they need the additional money.

Library Director Spencer Watts said the tax money will go toward renovating the older libraries in the system. Watts said they hope to add some of the most-loved features from the new Main Library and Fairwood Branch library to the other buildings.

Initially, many of the 12-member council resisted the idea of a tax increase.

But at least one Metro Council member changed her mind from the additional information. Councilwoman Tara Wicker initially said she was unsure if she could back the tax, but she said Tuesday that she will support it.

“I thought they really thought it through and had a real purpose for it,” Wicker said.

Wicker and Councilwoman Ronnie Edwards are currently the only Metro Council members to publicly support the library tax boost. The library will need seven votes for the 11.1 mills tax to be placed on ballots.

The Metro Council has no control over BREC’s property tax being rolled forward, though they appoint many of the members of the BREC Board of Commissioners. In 2012, several speakers asked the BREC Board of Commissioners to reject rolling forward the tax, and the measure failed with five votes when it needed six.

This time, the roll forward would generate an extra $936,998 a year for BREC. Superintendent Carolyn McKnight said the commissioners and the public need to understand how hard it is for BREC to stretch its $69 million operating budget between operating expenses, construction and paying back bonds.

“We’re constantly asking for grants, capital outlay, private donors,” she said. “It’s about just not leaning (on those) so heavily. ... I understand that people don’t want to pay more. I also understand that we have structures and sites to maintain.”

Conservative activist Woody Jenkins urged the BREC Board of Commissioners to reject the roll forward in 2012 and said he plans to speak against it again this week.

Jenkins said he is especially concerned that unelected boards, such as BREC’s governing board, can make tax decisions instead of voters.

The Metro Council will vote on the library’s tax at their 4 p.m. meeting on Wednesday at City Hall on St. Louis Street. The BREC Board of Commissioners will vote on that tax at their 5 p.m. Thursday at the BREC Administration Building on Florida Boulevard.