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.

Despite pressure from some Metro Council members for a lower library tax, the East Baton Rouge Parish Library Board in a surprise move Thursday voted to ask the council to place on the fall ballot a proposal to increase the property tax to 11.1 mills.

The Library Board’s move was contrary to calls from Metro Council members Ryan Heck and John Delgado for the library to seek a lower dedicated property tax and contrary to previous discussions in which Library Board members appeared amenable to shaving the tax. Over the past few weeks, it appeared the Library Board of Control was poised to ask the Metro Council to put a slightly smaller millage renewal on the ballot, a tad less than the current 10.78 mills.

But board members said they changed their minds after three residents, including the Rev. Raymond Jetson, asked them not to cave to political pressure to lower the tax.

“Our libraries are having an impact on quality of life in this community,” Jetson said at Thursday’s meeting. “And sometimes, being in positions of leadership means making decisions that some people find unpopular.”

The vote was split 4-2, with Stan Bardwell, Tanya Freeman, Kizzy Payton and Terrie Johnson supporting the tax increase proposition. Board members Travis Woodard and Logan Leger opposed the higher tax proposal and both chided their fellow board members for being “fiscally irresponsible.” Board member Jason Jacob was not at the meeting.

It is unclear whether there is support on the Metro Council to move the proposed tax increase to the ballot. Heck has led the charge for the library to lower its tax and has complained repeatedly that the system has too much money. He also hoped a lowered library tax would make room for a new tax for a proposed mental health center without increasing the overall tax burden.

“If the Library Board thinks we’re going to increase their already bloated budget, then they need beds in the proposed mental health facility,” Delgado said after the meeting.

Delgado said he was shocked and frustrated by the call to increase the tax. He said “over my dead body” would he allow the 11.1-mill property tax proposal to pass through the Metro Council.

“Without having a detailed look at the proposal, on its face to me, it seems high,” Heck said when contacted for comment after the meeting. “But we’re going to get into the details and see if it’s justified.”

The board at first appeared poised to ask for a small tax decrease to 10.7 mills, after Library Board Director Spencer Watts said that was the staff recommendation. But some residents encouraged the board to increase the tax.

“The Metro Council needs to think about our whole city and parish, and all of the different things that need to go into it,” said Carole Anne Brown, who said she frequently takes her grandchildren to the library. “But you are the ones that are the protectors of our wonderful library system, and that means all of the books, all of the media, all of the staff, all of the buildings, that we need to keep going wonderfully.”

Kathy Wascom, who used to work in the library’s reference department, said she remembered watching the library decay many years ago with a leaky roof and dust and mold. She reminded the board members how far the library system has come since those days and said now is not the time to take a step backward.

“I have a 17-year-old who, apart from coming to this place, appears to have an allergic reaction to books,” Jetson said. “But he enjoys coming to this space; it captivates him.”

Board members Woodard and Leger both proposed a 10.5-mill tax for the library and echoed each other in saying that number would be sufficient for the library to continue its operations.

The library’s budget projections, which include renovations to four libraries and adding eight new staff positions over the next 10 years, show that a 10.5-mill property tax would put the library more than $3.5 million in the red by 2025.

Then Bardwell proposed increasing the tax to 11.1 mills, the same level it was at when voters approved it 10 years ago. As property values have increased each year, the tax has been rolled back to 10.78 mills.

It was the first time any of the board members publicly discussed increasing the tax since Metro Council members started exerting pressure on them to lower it. Some Library Board members said they do not view an 11.1-mill tax as an increase because it is the same amount voters approved 10 years ago, though property values have since increased.

Bardwell and Freeman both said they were prepared to ask for a smaller tax before hearing from the public.

“If members of the board choose to go with an 11.1 millage and effectively recommend a tax increase at a time when the library’s not planning to add any capital improvements … we may cost ourselves a lot of credibility,” Woodard warned before the vote.

The library had unveiled plans for the new Main Library the last time the board asked for an 11.1-mill property tax 10 years ago.

Leger said he wished his fellow board members would have been more open to debating the merits of a tax increase instead of quickly approving the 11.1-mill tax proposal with little discussion.

“It’s going to be an uphill battle,” he said.

Neither he, nor Woodard, would speculate on the likelihood of the Metro Council allowing the library to ask for a tax increase. Metro Council members Tara Wicker and Ronnie Edwards have both previously said they support the libraries and would not want to take away their tax bases.

Freeman said they were justified in asking for a higher tax because of the public input and because the 10.7-mill tax would give the library system only what it needs to scrape by. Bardwell also worried that a possible elimination of the state inventory tax would leave the library with $4 million fewer dollars in its budget each year.

“It is our job as an advisory board to take the public comments and to advise them (the Metro Council) of how we feel,” Freeman said.

Baton Rouge does enjoy a higher library tax than most other parishes in the state, but the Baton Rouge library system is also more robust than most, with 14 branches throughout the city and into Baker, Pride and Zachary.

The New Orleans Public Library system operates the same number of branches but has a fraction of Baton Rouge’s property tax and has been deemed as heading toward financial crisis. Last year, the New Orleans Public Library’s 3.14-mill tax generated $8.8 million, which was not enough to run the system.

New Orleans voters will be asked to approve another library property tax in May that would raise their overall tax to 5.64 mills. The New Orleans library system has warned that without more money, it will be forced to close half of its libraries and cut back hours.

In Baton Rouge, library leaders say they want to upgrade the library system over the next 10 years. They envision more changes and renovations to the older libraries and note the construction starting on a new downtown River Center branch and a proposed south branch.

All of Baton Rouge’s libraries are open every day of the week. The Baton Rouge library system depends almost entirely on property taxes for its budget. This year, the agency is expected to bring in more than $40 million from property taxes.

Follow Andrea Gallo on Twitter, @aegallo.