St. Helena Library

A sign for the Audubon Library Summer Reading Program at the library's St. Helena Parish branch beckons residents in Greensburg, seen July 9, 2021.

GREENSBURG — St. Helena Parish officials want to spend federal coronavirus aid on a brand-new library they hope will expand literacy resources for youngsters and internet accessibility for residents of all ages.

A library jumped to the forefront of early-stage discussions about how the parish should spend money headed its way through President Joe Biden’s American Rescue Plan. Parish leaders figured the one-time construction costs would be well-suited to the one-time cash infusion, officials said. Later on, the library’s service costs could be covered by a tax that already exists in the parish.

“The goal is to invest in something that’s self-sustainable,” said Roderick Matthews, director of the St. Helena Police Jury’s Office of Emergency Preparedness, who has informed COVID-19-related decisions in the parish. “And in a parish with so many kids behind on reading levels, a new library is critical.”

Around the U.S., the size of federal relief payouts to local governments coupled with the sometimes-murky terms on which the money must be spent have posed big questions for local leaders — like those in St. Helena — unfamiliar with allocating hefty grants.

The St. Helena Police Jury is treading carefully before deciding how to spend the money, and remains in early talks about possible ARPA-funded projects, said Frank E. Johnson, the police jury president.

But because a new library would fill such an urgent need for the parish, the idea has moved to the top of the list of projects leaders are discussing.

Greensburg currently has a small library housed in a rented space on Main Street. That facility is part of the Audubon Regional Library system, which shares branches with East Feliciana Parish.

A newly-constructed library would remain part of that partnership, Johnson said. But putting the partnership in its own facility could offer more computers for residents of the broadband-strapped parish in addition to larger book collections and more space for visitors to get lost in a book, he said.

“It would help our kids by giving them more opportunities to further their education,” Johnson said, “which is the right thing to do.”

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In total, Biden’s plan will deliver $1.7 billion to parishes, cities and towns in Louisiana. Localities received one tranche of the money in June. A second is expected in 2022.

Governments have until 2024 to spend the money and must use the cash for projects that fall into one of four categories: ongoing COVID-19 mitigation, replenishing accounts depleted in the pandemic in order to revitalize public services, household and business stabilization, or addressing systemic public health problems.

Rural, sparsely-populated St. Helena is set to receive $227 for each of its 10,132 residents. Of the $2.3 million headed to the parish, $300,000 could go towards the $1.4 million library construction, according to Matthews.

The parish tentatively plans to spend $1.1 million in state-allocated funds on the project. The remaining cost, covered by the federal cash, would match what the parish is required to supply out of its general fund, Matthews said.

The parish has been discussing how to build a new library for a long time. But for a rural parish with a low tax base whose general fund was further depleted by the pandemic-induced recession, finding money to create that match may not have been possible without the federal aid.

“When your general fund is already depleted and you have to come up with that match, the question becomes, ‘Where do you pull it from?,’” Matthews said. “A lot of the funding has just not been there to be able to do things like this.”

During the pandemic, a surge in construction material prices spurred by a home-building boom sent the projected cost of the library project soaring, Matthews said. So the parish is deciding on a construction site for the new building as it waits for those costs to dissipate, which experts project will happen beginning in 2022.

Other infrastructure areas the parish hopes to bolster with its remaining allocation of federal cash include broadband and flood-prevention projects, according to Johnson. The rural area has for years struggled with those issues.

“We want to make sure we use it the right way,” Matthews said, “because this opportunity may not come again in the parish.”


James Finn writes for The Advocate as a Report For America corps member. Email him at JFinn@theadvocate.com or follow him on Twitter @RJamesFinn.

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