Officials with the East Baton Rouge Library System are no strangers to finding themselves targets of critics.
It’s not exactly the attention you’d expect for librarians, known for asking patrons of their tome-filled buildings to speak softly, or for their board members.
But it seems every few months the library system is being scrutinized and criticized for what some taxpayers, elected officials and general observers deem wasteful spending.
Plans to replace the 30-year-old downtown library for $19 million sparked a polarizing debate that even contributed to a failed recall effort of Metro Councilwoman Alison Gary, who supported the plans.
Baton Rouge Tea Party officer Mark Holmes said earlier this year the organization measures wasteful spending in increments of “DTLs,” which stands for Downtown Libraries.
Last month, the Metro Council debated whether the library system should be allowed to raise the pay of its director, per a recommendation by a search firm. The Metro Council ultimately voted against raising the salary, calling it excessive.
The library system is frequently accused of being wasteful, but as of Dec. 31, the system had a surplus of $51.5 million. The system’s entire annual budget is $38.3 million, which means the agency has a savings account that’s almost 150 percent of its actual budget.
Since the city-parish is self-insured, the surplus is needed for unforeseen disasters like a hurricane or a fire, said library system business manager Rhonda Pinsonat. One-time expenses also can be paid for with the surplus.
The surplus has grown faster than expected, Pinsonat said, because of “tremendous construction savings” at the new main library and salary savings from high staff turnover.
Pinsonat said the city-parish finance department suggested they keep a surplus of “no less than one year’s operations to allow for unforeseen circumstances.”
The library system’s careful budgeting means that if its 11.1-mill property tax isn’t renewed in 2015, the system could continue to operate for at least a year on the savings.
The library system is also debt free. It issues no bonds for its ongoing construction projects.
“That means it takes us awhile to save the funds, but when we open each new building, it’s completely paid for,” said Mary Stein, the library system’s interim co-director. “When we talk to librarians from other states, they are green with envy.”
The library system this year also avoided rolling forward its millage. Government agencies can roll forward, or use the prior year’s, property tax rates when reassessments result in increased property values, thus reaping additional tax revenue. The library system instead elected to stay with the automatic lower property tax rates in order to keep the tax revenues at the same level as the prior year.
The system’s property tax rate has been at 11.1 mills since 1995. In 2005, when the tax was renewed, officials did not ask to increase the millage, Stein said.
“We live within our means,” she said, even though the cost of books, salaries and benefits have increased.
In recent years, the library system has started construction on four branches — two new and two replacements. And still, the library’s budget has never strayed into the red.
Asked if she feels the level of scrutiny is unwarranted, Stein said it’s appreciated.
“The scrutiny is designed to safeguard the public’s trust,” she said, “and we appreciate that the public is so interested in us.”
Rebekah Allen covers city-parish government for The Advocate. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.