Baton Rouge voters have proved at the polls that they are willing to dig deep for libraries and parks, approving dedicated property taxes just for those amenities. But some local political leaders would like to carve out a portion of those tax dollars for other purposes, particularly new priorities like mental health care.
Earlier this year, the Metro Council rejected a tax proposal from Mayor-President Kip Holden that would have created a mental health center for non-violent offenders who otherwise end up in jail. The $16.6 million project — just one component of a much larger criminal justice tax proposal — was touted as a key reform to provide more humane treatment for Baton Rouge’s mentally ill population.
Although most council members liked the idea, not all were convinced a tax hike was required to do it, questioning whether other money might be found. And now some are eyeing dedicated tax revenues that fund parts of Baton Rouge government that operate largely independently, specifically the library and parks systems. They contend those public agencies are flush and should share the wealth.
“It’s made some institutions, for lack of a better term, wealthy, while others suffer,” Councilman Ryan Heck said of dedicated tax revenue going to certain public agencies.
Officials with both the library and the East Baton Rouge Recreation and Park Commission have balked at the idea. They say the perception that their operations are rich is erroneous and that they shouldn’t be punished for spending their money responsibly. Indeed, they say, the reason their institutions have taxes dedicated to them is to avoid having their accounts raided.
For the library, the issue is particularly timely, as its property tax will be back on the ballot in some form come October. BREC is not slated to hold a tax election until 2016 or 2017.
The library system expects to bring in more than $40 million in property taxes in 2015, which makes up more than 98 percent of its entire budget. That’s more than four times the $9.2 million the financially falling apart New Orleans Public Library system expects from its much smaller property tax in 2015. New Orleans library officials are trying to add another property tax that, together with the existing millage, would generate just over $17 million.
Baton Rouge’s park system is expecting to bring in more than $52 million in taxes this year.
How much freedom elected leaders should have to spend taxpayer dollars is a question that often confronts voters, although typically not as a broad philosophical issue. Instead, ballot items for both local and state government regularly ask voters to protect something important from spending cuts.
At the state level, this is often done by giving certain areas of government constitutional protections. For local government, it can mean property tax millages dedicated to particular purposes, from funding a sheriff’s office to libraries.
Dedicated taxes have been the answer to the public not trusting elected officials enough to spend their money in the way that they want, said political consultant and pollster Bernie Pinsonat.
The movement of money that’s dedicated to one agency to another is also part of why many people distrust their elected leaders, Pinsonat said.
“They voted for that money to be used for libraries, to be used for recreation and parks,” he said. “Now you’re gonna take it and use it for something else? ... You’re going to incur a lot of wrath from voters.”
Heck and Councilman John Delgado have their eyes on the library’s fund balance, or the difference between assets and liabilities in a government fund. The library’s finance department has pegged its fund balance at $57.5 million as of Dec. 31.
Library officials are in the process of projecting how much money they need to operate over the next decade or so. They say that number, and solely that number, will determine how much they ask for from taxpayers next fall.
Heck and Delgado’s idea is that a smaller library or parks tax would make room to squeeze in a new mental health center tax without inflating tax bills overall. Voters would have to approve both taxes.
“Theoretically, they could ask for their same millage,” Heck said. “If seven council members think they need less, that’s what we’ll put on the ballot.”
Library officials say they can easily make the case that they are one of the more fiscally responsible government organizations in East Baton Rouge.
“We’re the Dave Ramsey of libraries,” said Assistant Library Director Mary Stein, referring to the radio host and best-selling author on financial planning. “Nobody gives us any money; nobody’s going to bail us out if there’s an issue.”
Library officials often tout their pay-as-you-go plan for projects, as they do not depend on bonds or other future forms of paying for new buildings or maintenance. Instead, they only build projects they know they have money for at the present.
Stein said the figure approaching $60 million is misleading. The fund balance is full of necessary money, according to the library officials. It includes:
-- Money that has been accumulated over time for capital projects that are just now being approved, like an Outreach Center that the Metro Council only approved them to purchase a few months ago.
-- One full year of operating expenses, $45 million, in case voters would not pass the library’s property tax that makes up its whole budget.
-- Insurance deductible money. The library is self-insured and has to pay a $1 million deductible before insurance coverage begins, which could mean shelling out millions in a year with several problems occurring, Stein said.
-- Storm reserve money, in case a library would be damaged by a hurricane or storm. Stein said the library cannot rely on FEMA money, which also would come in the form of a reimbursement several years down the line.
-- Money for future capital projects, like renovations to roofs and floors.
Delgado, though, regards the fund balance as excessive. No government entity should operate with that much money in its reserve accounts, he said. And, he said, there is no reason for the full year of operating revenue, saying it is inconceivable that voters would ever defund the library entirely.
BREC and the library have both argued they also need the flow of money for upkeep of their facilities, which wear down over time given their constant use.
Cheryl Michelet, communications director for BREC, said the parks system is still thinly stretched for money despite its 14.038-mill tax, which is more than the library collects.
Many parks and libraries nationally rely on dedicated, local property taxes.
The National Recreation and Park Association says about 22 percent of park systems from which it pulls data have dedicated taxes, though spokeswoman Lauren Hoffmann estimated that the actual number is higher.
Public libraries also receive the majority of their funding from local sources, rather than state or federal funds, according to Larry Neal, president of the Public Library Association.
“From the library standpoint, having a stable source of funding is incredibly important so the library can focus on the community,” Neal said.
It is difficult to compare the East Baton Rouge Parish Library system to others nationwide, given that the property tax is essentially its only source of income and the system operates 14 libraries and an outreach center.
On the state level, the East Baton Rouge Parish Library system is much better funded than its counterparts in New Orleans and Lafayette.
In fact, the $44 million the East Baton Rouge Parish Library system plans to spend on its operations in 2015 is nearly 2½ times the $18 million that the suffering New Orleans Public Library system is begging for to properly fund libraries there.
The New Orleans Public Library system also operates 14 libraries but has been heading for a financial crisis for years as the mayor has not been allocating money to the library from the general fund. The New Orleans Public Library tax is 3.14 mills but has not been increased in decades.
New Orleans voters will decide in May if they want to approve another 2.5-mill tax for 25 years for the struggling library system. That would put the total tax for New Orleans libraries at 5.64 mills, a little more than half of the 10.78-mill library tax in Baton Rouge.
Property tax documents from Lafayette show three different library taxes, which total 6.52 mills. The Lafayette Public Library System has 10 open branches, one that is closed for renovations and one that is being constructed.
Neal, the Public Library Association president, also is the director of Michigan’s Clinton-Macomb Public Library. The system is much smaller than Baton Rouge’s, with one main library and two branches.
Neal said they were recently successful in asking voters to approve a 1.28-mill property tax that comprises about 90 percent of the library system’s budget.
Neal said he’s happy to see voters still supporting libraries given recent changes in technology. He echoed what Baton Rouge library officials have often said: Libraries are no longer just homes for old, dusty books. Instead they are places for technology, learning and overall betterment on oneself.
Metro Councilwoman Tara Wicker said the technological changes are why she supports the library and would not want to take away its tax base. Wicker represents citizens in urban areas of the city and said many need the library’s technology to complete homework, use the Internet and more.
Councilwoman Ronnie Edwards agreed, saying the money swap could start a slippery slope.
“I am definitely a big supporter of the library. That would set a bad precedent,” Edwards said. “We’ve never done that before. And that would be so unfair to the library.”