Our Views: The Metro Council should be securing and growing library gains _lowres

Advocate staff photo by PATRICK DENNIS --Metro Councilman John Delgado suggests passing millage for the East Baton Rouge Library system, but at a lower rate during the Metro Council meeting Wednesday as Councilman Ryan Heck, left, listens.

In a community where residents often argue about how to improve public schools and city streets, Baton Rouge has, for the past generation, benefited from a strong consensus about the need for good libraries.

That consensus is now in jeopardy as members of the East Baton Rouge Parish Metro Council prepare to debate the merits of a proposed tax renewal for the library. We urge council members to approve the proposal in its current form and send it to voters for an autumn election.

Voters approved an 11.1-mill property tax for the library in 1995 and renewed the tax in 2005. In return, library officials pledged to build new branch libraries, replace old buildings, and eventually construct a new Main Library. That same tax is up for renewal again.

The library’s leaders kept their promises. By any objective measure, East Baton Rouge Parish has the best public library system in the state, and one of the best in the region. Its branches are beautiful, and the new Main Library on Goodwood Boulevard is a crown jewel of the city. An ambitious regimen of programming has helped the library system capitalize on its stellar facilities. The crowded parking lots for this season’s summer reading program are a reminder of the good work the library does.

The library’s stewards improved and maintained the system with pay-as-you-go financing, slowly putting aside funds that could be used for new construction or renovations rather than borrowing money. Mary Stein, assistant library director, has noted that much of the library system’s $66 million cash balance has already been earmarked for six projects, including a new River Center branch, along with money for new floors and improvements at other branches. The reserve fund also includes money for emergencies such as storm damage.

Now, oddly, some members of the Metro Council have pointed to the library’s cash reserves not as a plus, but a problem — a sign that our library is doing too well. They’ve proposed shaving the library’s proposed millage, lightening its tax take so that, presumably, voters would be more inclined to approve different taxes for other community needs, such as a new mental health facility.

It’s a dubious game of zero-sum economics, since there’s no guarantee that cutting the library’s revenue stream would help officials advance taxes for completely different purposes. Targeting a public institution that’s managed its money prudently and saved for future needs would set a terrible precedent, signaling to other public agencies that they should spend down their cash reserves to prevent the ire of the Metro Council. What kind of fiscal policy is that?

The Metro Council should send the proposed renewal of the 11.1-mill library tax to voters. We should be securing and growing the library’s gains of the past two decades, not weakening them.