The dedicated tax for the East Baton Rouge Library system has gone through an evolution over the past half-year.
Earlier this year, the tax created something of a controversy as some politicians eyed it and asked, “What if Baton Rouge could use some of the $40 million the tax will bring in this year for one of the city’s other needs?” Mental health? Roads?
But public sentiment appeared to favor the library as many residents encouraged library staffers to buck the political pressure to lower the currently authorized millage amount when putting the tax on the Oct. 24 ballot for renewal.
The library was happy to acquiesce, and the Metro Council narrowly voted in favor of the tax as well — with some council members saying it was clear their constituents wanted to fund libraries.
East Baton Rouge residents finally will have the chance to vote during the Oct. 24 elections. The tax is all or nothing. If voters reject it, the library will lose the revenue source that funds more than 98 percent of its operations.
The library calls its property tax a renewal, but others have deemed it an increase. The system is asking for 11.1 mills, which is the same size tax it has requested over the past two decades, and it would generate about $44 million in 2016.
As property values rise, property tax millages every four years can either be scaled back to keep revenue at the same level or rolled forward with the same millage, which means an increase in revenue for the taxing body.
The library’s tax had been rolled back to 10.78 mills as property values have grown. When political pressure was on for the library to lower its tax, library Director Spencer Watts said the library could manage on 10.7 mills before the Library Board voted to set the tax back at its originally authorized 11.1 mills.
Watts did say, however, that services and programs might have to be scaled back and the capital improvements needed in some of the library’s oldest branches might not be possible if the tax was set at 10.7 mills.
For the average resident, a “yes” vote on the tax will mean paying more money for the library.
Baton Rouge residents with $200,000 homes and homestead exemption pay $134.75 annually for the library. If voters approve the tax, bills would rise to $138.75.
Those with $150,000 properties would shell out a few more dollars each year, with bills going from $80.85 to $83.25 yearly. And people with $250,000 properties would see their tax increase from $188.65 a year to $194.25 a year.
“We’re probably in the top 10 percent of libraries our size in terms of funding,” Watts said.
Library system administrators want to keep it that way. They point to the struggling library system in New Orleans, where residents pay about half the amount of library taxes as people in Baton Rouge, as an example of the perils of an underfunded library system.
Some Library Board members initially questioned why the system should ask taxpayers for the same amount of money when its major Main Library building project is complete. Also, money has been set aside for rebuilding the downtown River Center Branch Library and the forthcoming South Branch that does not have a location.
Still, library staffers say they want to incorporate some of the new library’s features and technology into the older branches. The new tax would help fund renovations to the other branches.
Libraries set for upgrades include the Jones Creek Regional Branch Library; Greenwell Springs Regional Branch library; Baker Branch Library; the Scotlandville Branch Library; Central Branch Library and Zachary Branch Library.
Some of the initial opposition has died down since the tax made the ballot and the library began promoting its tax election.
Metro Councilman Ryan Heck, who was among the tax’s most vocal critics earlier this year, has backed away from continued criticism.
“I’ve said my piece, and I voted my conscience,” Heck said. He voted against allowing the 11.1-mill tax on ballots. “It’s the will of the voters; if they want it, then they’ll vote it in.”
However, some critics are still asking voters to reject the library tax. John Berry, who attends nearly every Library Board meeting, accused the Metro Council of having no backbone for letting the tax go on the ballot at 11.1 mills.
The council members who voted in favor of placing the tax on the ballot were Joel Boé, Tara Wicker, Chauna Banks-Daniel, C. Denise Marcelle, Donna Collins-Lewis, Ronnie Edwards and Trae Welch. Heck joined Scott Wilson, John Delgado and Buddy Amoroso in voting against it. Mayor Pro Tem Chandler Loupe was not at the meeting.
In a recent letter to the Metro Council, Berry slammed library staff’s inability to find a suitable location for the South Branch after spending years and money scouting for one. He also said the upcoming reconstruction of the River Center Branch downtown will “never work” because of the lack of parking.
“Signal the library to align its monetary demands with real needs, then come back with a realistic budget for the public’s consideration,” Berry wrote.
The library’s supporters have promoted their tax in a variety of ways, from passing out blue and yellow yard signs to holding citizen meetings. The East Baton Rouge Library PAC is leading the campaign.
They also have warned of what could happen if the tax failed — the library would have to use its savings to pay for daily operations, and cut back on staff, services, hours and materials. They would need to hold a special election in the spring.