Voters backed another 10 years of dedicated tax dollars Saturday for East Baton Rouge Parish libraries, which make up one of the largest and most well-funded systems in the state.
Property tax bills will now increase by several dollars a year for Baton Rouge property owners depending on the assessed values of their homes. Library system leaders say they plan to use the money for more ambitious improvements, including renovations to branches that will start with the oldest buildings.
Had voters not approved the tax, the library system would have lost its only real revenue source, as the property tax money makes up 98 percent of its $40 million budget. Library officials stressed that it was an all-or-nothing vote during their campaign for the tax, and that a “no” vote left the library system with zero funding, rather than just a smaller tax base.
Baton Rouge residents with $200,000 homes and a homestead exemption will now pay $138.75 annually. People with $250,000 properties will pay $194.25 a year.
The library system billed the tax as a renewal, but some critics dubbed it an increase. Residents approved 11.1 mills in library taxes 10 years ago, but the tax had since been rolled back to 10.78 mills as property values increased. It is again 11.1 mills.
Six months ago, some Metro Council members decried the library system for having too much money, saying the city had other needs where the library’s dedicated money might be better spent. In particular, some eyed the library’s pots of reserves, which include tens of millions of dollars in cash balances. They asked why the system was asking for more money when it already had so much put away.
Library supporters countered that much of their reserve money was earmarked for new libraries, renovations and rainy days. They also said the library system was a rare example of a state of the art system in Baton Rouge, one that wins awards and provides educational opportunities for the affluent and impoverished alike.
Under pressure, Library Director Spencer Watts said in the spring that the system could survive on slightly less tax money. But the Library Board pushed ahead with a renewal at the 11.1 mills level, a tax that voters have approved for the last two decades.
Initially, many Metro Council members insisted that they would not allow the 11.1 mill tax on the ballot, but ended up changing their minds during a June vote.
Controversy about the library’s tax had largely subsided by election day. A few dedicated opponents stuck by their calls to shrink the tax, but no formal opposition bubbled up to fight the renewal campaign.
The limited campaign had residents showing their support for the library’s funding with blue and yellow yard signs with the word “YES!” splashed across them. Library officials held public meetings to present more information and answer questions about the tax.
Local leaders like Rev. Raymond Jetson assured their support and asked others to get involved as well.
“The library, in many ways, has become Baton Rouge’s living room,” Jetson said.
The system’s future plans include rebuilding the downtown River Center Branch and building a South Branch Library on a site that’s yet to be determined. The libraries slated for renovations include Jones Creek Regional Branch Library, Bluebonnet Regional Branch Library, Greenwell Springs Regional Branch Library, Baker Branch Library, Scotlandville Branch Library, Central Branch Library, Zachary Branch Library and Delmont Gardens Branch Library.