From the stairwell looking down on the interior of the new Main Library on Goodwood Boulevard, a busy and beautiful contrast to the dingy old building it replaced, it’s hard to imagine that there is a constituency in East Baton Rouge Parish that is against libraries.
Now, though, politics will test whether people are serious about having a first-class library system.
At least two members of the Metro Council have called for reducing the library’s tax base when voters are asked to renew the property tax that has funded Louisiana’s best library system.
That last, by the way, is no idle boast.
Take what metrics you want — books and films checked out, participants in programs and meetings, online services — the system is thriving. The new Main Library is a showplace, but the system now has new regional libraries and branches across the parish, including the growing areas of the north in Zachary and Pride. A new library to take advantage of growth in downtown is in planning stages, and extensive renovations to older branches are in the 10-year plan for the tax to be renewed this year.
It’s not unfair to say that pound for pound, Baton Rouge’s public libraries are as good as any place in America.
Contrast the Baton Rouge system to that in New Orleans, where, because of hurricane recovery funding, the city has some fine new library buildings — but little money to operate them. Unlike New Orleans, Baton Rouge libraries are open seven days, and there would be rebellion if the hours were to be cut.
Or would there be?
The newly built library system is the fruit of 10-year investments starting at 11.1 mills of property tax, passed in 1995 and 2005. The citizen board that runs the system proposes to ask voters for the same millage rate, a modest increase by now because during reassessments of property every four years, rates tend to be shaved back a bit. So 11.1 is slightly more than 10.78, the current rate, but like its predecessor, it likely will be reduced a couple of times when reassessments roll around.
The agenda of cutting the library tax has been pushed by Metro Councilmen John Delgado and Ryan Heck, who have talked about reducing the library’s millage so that other projects can be funded with less pain to the taxpayer.
Perhaps by trimming the library tax, the council members can pretend they are fiscally responsible, cutting the “bloated” library budget, in Delgado’s words.
One Metro Council goal, a good one, is for a mental health facility to avoid clogging jails and police agencies. It’s a great idea and one that is likely to enjoy wide support. But why does that come at the cost of cutting libraries?
It’s a false economy. Libraries are, above all, educational institutions. It’s almost a mathematical proposition: The less we spend on books in libraries, the more we’ll spend later on cells in prisons.
That the library builds up reserves to pay for its building projects makes it a target, even as it is more financially prudent to be a pay-as-you-go system.
That avoids paying interest and fat fees for bond attorneys who contribute to Metro Council campaigns, a drawback if you’re an officeholder wanting to raise money to run for other offices.
Metro Council member Ronnie Edwards has it right: “If every other (city-parish) department did the same thing, we would save millions of dollars, without having to bond these projects,” she told The Advocate’s Andrea Gallo.
Maybe not entirely, because huge projects like a new prison or drainage work do require long-term debt, but the library system’s success — financial and in terms of quality services — certainly shows that pay-as-you-go works. Would that everything the Metro Council oversees perform as well as the library system does.
Metro Council members preening themselves as guardians of the taxpayers really represent a new generation of the Yokel Caucus, the old attitude that Baton Rouge can always get by with second-best and second-class, that superior performance by a public body ought to be punished by having its funding reduced.
Lanny Keller is an editorial writer for The Advocate. His email address is email@example.com.