Three residents pushing for higher tax got East Baton Rouge Parish Library Board members to change their minds _lowres

Advocate staff photo by PATRICK DENNIS -- The East Baton Rouge Parish Library Reading Room.

Even after New Orleans voters this weekend overwhelmingly approved a substantial property tax hike for libraries, that city’s system still receives less than half the amount of dedicated funds as the East Baton Rouge Parish Library’s annual take.

The two library systems have the same number of branches and are separated by fewer than 100 miles, but have been on opposite trajectories in recent years. While the Baton Rouge library system has grown by adding new libraries and planning renovations to older ones, the New Orleans Library System was forced to cut back operating hours and services.

Now the Baton Rouge library system is poised to put a tax measure on the ballot, and some parish leaders have advocated for reducing the size of the millage, which brings in about $40 million a year. In New Orleans, the library system had expected to take in about $9.5 million this year from its existing millage, and the newly approved tax should generate an additional $8.25 million annually.

But Baton Rouge Library Director Spencer Watts said the success of the New Orleans tax proposal is a lesson that this city’s library strategy is on the right track.

Watts said the higher library taxes in Baton Rouge are necessary, pointing to the seven-days-a-week operations, additional services offered, size of the library’s collection and maintenance of the buildings.

“They’re going from a situation where they had to cut back,” Watts said. “We’re at a high level of access, and we want to maintain all of the things we’ve achieved, including that all of our branches are open Sunday afternoon.”

The new tax money will allow the New Orleans library to increase hours of operation by 30 percent and add everyday service to about half of the libraries.

Baton Rouge residents with $200,000 homes that take a homestead exemption currently pay $134.75 a year in library taxes. With the tax increase approved this weekend, New Orleans residents with $200,000 homestead-exempt residences will pay $71.71 a year in library taxes.

The Baton Rouge library has an operating budget of about $40 million annually. But even after some Metro Council members publicly suggested the Library Board look to drop the property tax before it goes on the ballot in the fall, board members balked. Instead, a majority of the board in March voted to raise the existing 10.78 millage to a proposed 11.1 mills.

Metro Councilman Ryan Heck had once pitched the idea that if the library tax was lower, it could make room for a new tax to fund a mental health center without taxpayers seeing their tax bills increase.

Many Metro Council members reacted negatively to the news that the Library Board was pushing for a higher millage.

“Based on last year’s budget, and the amount of reserves they have, I can’t imagine why they felt a tax increase is justified,” Mayor Pro Tem Chandler Loupe said at the time.

Metro Councilman Trae Welch said he was offended that the board members did not talk to the Metro Council before voting for the higher tax. The Metro Council appoints members to the Library Board and will need to approve any millage before it goes to the voters.

Only one Metro Council member came out in early support of the tax proposal. Councilwoman Ronnie Edwards said she does not view the tax as an increase and has repeatedly applauded the library for its pay-as-you-go nature of building projects rather than bonding out money to pay for them.

Library Board members have defended their decision by saying voters approved their property tax at the 11.1 mills level the last two election cycles. The library’s property tax has since been rolled back as property values were reassessed.

Since the March Library Board vote, library staffers have courted Metro Council members, hoping to persuade enough of them to keep their tax at 11.1 mills when it goes to voters rather than see the Council shave it down.

Watts briefed Metro Council members a few weeks ago on what the library hoped to do with the 11.1 mills tax. Despite assumptions that the library system has too much money, Watts showed budget projections for the 11.1 mills tax that revealed the library’s reserves would be down to $1.5 million by 2025. Watts and library staffers also have set up a meeting Thursday for Metro Council members to tour their facilities.

The Metro Council members will vote later this month on whether to approve the library’s property tax at 11.1 mills. They have the authority to approve whatever size they see fit.

Baton Rouge library advocates say the New Orleans system is an example of what could happen to a severely underfunded library system. Library leaders told the New Orleans City Council months ago that they would exhaust their reserves by the middle of 2016 unless they got more money.

The New Orleans library was running on a 3.14 mills tax with no additional annual money from the city, but now its total millage is up to 5.64 mills. The Baton Rouge Library system uses its 10.78 mills tax to pay for more than 98 percent of its budget and does not receive an allocation from city government.