Baton Rouge library director begins pitch to voters to renew library's property tax _lowres

Advocate staff photo by Andrea Gallo -- East Baton Rouge Parish Library Director Spencer Watts told the Baton Rouge Press Club on Monday that the library system is entirely dependent on its tax money. Watts is campaigning for the public to renew the library's property tax during the October 2015 elections.

East Baton Rouge Parish Library Director Spencer Watts on Monday embarked on his six-week side gig, giving Baton Rouge journalists a taste of his campaign speech to encourage voters to renew the library’s property tax.

The library’s dedicated tax has been especially scrutinized this past year, as some elected officials called on the library to lower their rate while others encouraged the library to keep collecting its current amount. Library advocates convinced the Metro Council to sign off on the same 11.1-mill tax they have been collecting, but they must now make the case for the voters to approve it as well on Oct. 24.

Watts told the Baton Rouge Press Club that the library system has many changes planned, including the rebuilding of the River Center Branch Library that will soon go out to bid. But the library cannot survive without the tax, which makes up nearly its entire budget.

“Our community has an opportunity to decide what kind of library we’re going to have or if we’re going to have a library at all,” Watts said.

Playing up his literary job, Watts said he wants the library to have a Horatio Algeresque story, in which characters often ascend from difficult situations to success.

The library’s property tax is expected to generate about $44 million in 2016. The library brought in about $40.7 million in property taxes in 2015.

Though the millage rate of 11.1 is the same rate voters have been asked to approve during the library’s past two election cycles, the tax translates into property owners paying more money.

Property values have risen over time and the library’s tax rates have been scaled back to account for the change. East Baton Rouge Parish residents currently pay 10.78 mills.

Baton Rouge residents who own properties worth $200,000 with a homestead exemption pay $134.75 annually for the library. If voters approve the new tax, bills would rise to $138.75.

Home owners with $150,000 properties would see their bills increase from $80.85 yearly to $83.25 yearly. Those with $250,000 properties would watch their tax bills grow from $188.65 a year to $194.25 a year.

The library system already has the money set aside to build a new River Center Branch Library in downtown and to construct a South Branch Library, though they are still searching for a location. Once the River Center Branch secures a bidder, it should take about one-and-a-half to two years to build.

Along with paying for operating expenses, the new tax money would go toward improvements on many of the library’s other, older branches that are in need of refurbishment. The first in line is the 24-year-old Jones Creek Regional Branch Library.

The library also has planned improvements to the Bluebonnet Regional, the Greenwell Springs Road Regional, the Baker Branch, the Scotlandville Branch, the Central Branch, the Zachary Branch and the Delmont Gardens Branch libraries.

“We don’t need to rest on our laurels and we don’t think we’re perfect,” Watts said.