BR leaders showcase new features at Independence Park, library _lowres

Advocate staff photo by ANGELA MAJOR -- Michael Brown, age 9, plays a giant game of chess Saturday, Nov. 22, 2014, during the ribbon cutting ceremony for the Plaza in front of the Main Library and the BREC Independence Park cybercafŽ.

In Baton Rouge, a city with clogged streets, an aging prison and many troubled public schools, libraries and parks are among the things that generally work well. Now, some city officials want to tinker with a winning formula, shifting resources away from healthy civic institutions that are a big part of what makes this city so special. Voters should be skeptical of this idea and think long and hard before supporting what at first glance looks like an exercise in expediency, not enlightened public policy.

Voters have, over the years, approved dedicated millages for the library and the Baton Rouge Recreation and Park Commission, or BREC. Library officials must go before the council this year for approval to put a millage renewal on the ballot for October. BREC is not slated to hold a renewal election for its millages until at least next year. Metro Council members have suggested that millages for the library and BREC should be scaled back, allowing voters to approve taxes for a new mental health center without increasing their total tax bill.

Baton Rouge does, indeed, need a new mental health center. But cutting millages for libraries and parks would not guarantee that voters would support taxes for the mental health facility. The parish could end up with reduced resources for libraries and parks but no extra dollars for mental health.

Recent headlines remind us that depending too heavily on this region’s oil, gas and petrochemical industry to advance prosperity is a prescription for failure. We need to continue building a more diverse economy, and that means offering the kinds of cultural amenities that smart, talented workers want.

Baton Rouge boasts the best and busiest public library system in the state — a key cultural asset for a community that needs to keep and attract bright young families to prosper. Thanks to voter support for dedicated library taxes, library officials have been able to build a system of clean, attractive branches throughout the parish, culminating in the opening of a beautiful new Main Library last year. The library has a healthy fund balance of $57.5 million, but its pay-as-you-go plan for facilities means that historically, the library has kept money in the bank for its future capital improvements and maintenance rather than borrowing money through bond issues. The library also keeps reserves on hand for emergencies. Salaries for library workers are modest, and library patrons seem to be getting a lot of bang for the buck. Ironically, the library’s financial prudence has now made it a target for council members seeking an easy fix to the parish’s funding challenges.

What’s more, the library has made good use of tax money by partnering with BREC to share resources. The collaboration between the library and BREC to create public gardens outside the Main Library is a good example of that cooperation.

BREC’s parks and summer programs are the envy of neighboring communities. The agency’s summer camps and after-school programs provide safe, highly affordable, educational day care for thousands of residents. Why mess with success?

Baton Rouge has nice libraries and parks because voters apparently decided that you get what you pay for. This community can’t truly meet its obligations by robbing Peter to pay Paul.