Yard signs, car magnets, stickers and bookmarks urging people to vote “Yes! Oct. 24” are popping up around East Baton Rouge Parish, as library supporters press their case to renew the property tax that underwrites the parish system and its 14 branches.
The campaign to renew the tax was formally launched at an event at Theatre Baton Rouge on Thursday and will continue for the next month through election day, Oct. 24.
“This will be a very modest campaign,” Library Board President Kizzy Payton told a small audience, relying on grass-roots support, as well as outreach on social media.
The tax has already undergone unusually close scrutiny, especially for a renewal. Some elected officials called on the library to lower the rate, while others encouraged the library to keep collecting its current amount. Library advocates persuaded the East Baton Rouge Parish Metro Council in June to sign off on the same 11.1-mill tax that’s already on the books.
The Rev. Raymond Jetson, pastor of Star Hill Baptist Church and president of the nonprofit group MetroMorphosis, said the library system has become a sanctuary and a resource for many in the parish. He said people from his own congregation often cross the street to hold meetings at the Eden Park branch.
“The library, in many ways, has become Baton Rouge’s living room,” Jetson said.
EBR Library PAC, recently revived, is leading the renewal campaign, just as it did during the last successful renewal campaign in 2005. The political action committee spent almost $63,000 that election, which occurred less than two months after Hurricane Katrina. More than 62 percent of voters voted in favor of the renewal.
In the past decade, the library has used that increased revenue to make a number of improvements, including building a new $35 million Main Library, which opened in 2014.
Gerry Stark, of Collaborate Louisiana, best known for making plastic mats for the homeless, said she frequently uses the library’s ever increasing digital collection.
“Why would I purchase a Netflix subscription or spend my money elsewhere when all I need is an EBR Library card?” she asked.
Councilman John Delgado was one of four council members who voted against putting the renewal on the ballot as is. He has questioned whether the library needs more money when it has $60 million-plus in its reserves. The library says most of this money is earmarked for future projects, including the new downtown library branch.
Delgado also has criticized the library’s future budget projections that show the system would have only a $1.5 million cash balance 10 years from now with an 11.1-mill tax, and even less of a cash balance with a smaller tax.
“If you raise the tax higher, they will still spend through all of it,” Delgado said. “As long as you give it to them, they will spend it.”
The revived EBR Library PAC, which has raised about $4,200 so far for this election, is being led by Emilie Smart, a retired reference librarian. She said on Thursday that the parish libraries are the “best run in the state” and that library leaders are judicious in what they spend their money on. She urged supporters to spread the word and not to be shy.
“Get in an argument with those who say they are going to vote, ‘No.’ ” Smart urged. “Tell them why it’s a bad idea, a very, very bad idea.”
Mary Stein, assistant library director, said if voters reject the renewal, the whole system is put in jeopardy since the tax makes up nearly its entire budget.
“The tax does not just default to a lower rate,” Stein said.
Library supporters would have to wait six months before they could try again to renew the tax. The uncertainty in the meantime could mean curtailing some services and putting some improvement projects on hold, Stein said.
If renewed, 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 library since 2012 has been collecting only 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.
Homeowners 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.
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, followed by the Bluebonnet Regional, the Greenwell Springs Road Regional, Baker, Scotlandville, Central, Zachary and Delmont Gardens branches.
“We put it all out there,” Stein said. “We hold nothing back.”