Library Board members on Tuesday considered lowering their dedicated property tax, though they are still uncertain how much money they will ask for from taxpayers next fall.
The board will vote on the tax amount later this month, but several members are considering asking for a slightly smaller tax that would still keep about $15 million on hand for capital improvements, emergencies and insurance money. Some public officials, including Metro Council members who will eventually be asked to approve the tax, have put pressure on Library Board members to lower their 10.78-mill property tax.
Voters approved the library’s current tax as 11.1 mills last time around, but it has since been rolled back as property values increased. At Tuesday’s meeting, board members weighed the pros and cons of asking for a shade smaller tax, between 10.5 mills and 10.7 mills.
A 10.5-mill property tax would leave too little money for major capital improvements a decade from now, while a 10.7-mill tax would give the library system more cash for sweeping changes and more wiggle room in case of emergencies.
Some Library Board members said they are concerned the public would not continue to pay the current tax without the plans for ambitious projects and new buildings that have become commonplace over the past two decades.
Still, Library Director Spencer Watts said they hope to renovate and upgrade the oldest library branches within the next 15 years. Among them are Jones Creek Regional Branch Library, Baker Branch Library, Greenwell Springs Regional Branch Library and the Scotlandville Branch Library.
Watts said they would expect to spend around $18.2 million on the improvements, and the library already has $1.4 million set aside for an upcoming smaller renovation to the Bluebonnet Regional Branch Library.
Councilmen Ryan Heck and John Delgado have called on library officials to lower their tax as part of their idea to find funds for a new mental health center. They propose having taxpayers pay less money for libraries but also pay a new tax for mental health, with the overall tax burden remaining the same.
Other Metro Council members, such Ronnie Edwards and Tara Wicker, have been more protective of the library’s money and said they would not want to take away its tax base.
“We definitely did not strike first with this conversation and so we are on the defense right now,” said Library Board member Kizzy Payton.
Library Board member Terrie Johnson asked what the political climate is like and if the Metro Council is likely to reject the library’s proposed tax.
“To operate in a vacuum that says we’re going to come back with the same (tax) amount … is going to be subject to some criticism from the folks saying why can’t you do with a little less like everyone else,” said Library Board member Travis Woodard.
Woodard and board member Logan Leger both proposed scaling back the library tax and said the board should consider doing away with plans for the long-awaited south branch library.
Payton and Library Board President Tanya Freeman disagreed, saying the south branch library has long been promised to the residents of the southern part of the parish. Library officials still have not found a site for the library, though the money to build it and staff it was included in the 10-year budget projections.
“One sure way to kill the tax in the fall is to say we’re not going to build this (south) branch,” Payton said, noting that residents have been paying taxes and awaiting the outcome of a south branch.
The library is also not significantly ballooning its budget over the next decade. Staffers project spending around $50 million a decade from now, while the library budgeted $44 million to spend on operations this year. Watts said the budget projection accounts for the library not hiring any new positions over the next 10 years, as well as cutting money from travel and training budgets.
Watts said he would like a tax no lower than 10.6 mills.
Freeman said she is leaning toward voting for a tax between 10.6 and 10.7 mills, while Library Board Vice President Jason Jacob said he is still unsure. Jacob said the rollback of the tax will be his biggest concern, as a tax that starts out at 10.7 mills in 2016 is expected to drop to 10.28 mills by 2025.
The board members are expected to vote on the tax amount next week at their monthly meeting.
Follow Andrea Gallo on Twitter, @aegallo.