Libraries are typically quiet places, but Thursday night’s St. Tammany Parish Council debate over the millage for the St. Tammany Parish Library was punctuated by sporadic bursts of applause, both from those who wanted an increase in the dedicated tax and those who opposed increasing any of the 13 parish millages under consideration.
The library had requested that the council boost the system’s millage from 5.35 mills to 6.29 mills, near the voter-approved maximum of 6.33 mills, but the council voted 8-6 to reject the request after nearly half an hour of public hearing and council debate.
The library millage was the only one of the 13 millages that generated any significant debate and the only one on which an increase was proposed.
The library said the extra $1.5 million that would be generated by the increase would be used strictly for capital improvements, including added parking at several branches and a new administrative office near Abita Springs.
“The library is an educational institution, not just a warehouse for books or computers,” said Dr. Argiro Morgan, a Library Board of Control member who spoke in favor of the increase. “We teach basic literacy. We reinforce what the schools are doing.”
Morgan pointed to East Baton Rouge Parish, which she said has a lower per capita income than St. Tammany Parish but still built a $35 million, 126,000-square-foot main library.
“A vote for this is a vote for education,” she concluded.
The library got support from the Northshore Business Council, an alliance of business owners represented by developer Bruce Wainer.
“The library is in dire need of repairs,” Wainer said. “We support their roll-up.”
Those arguments were not enough to sway eight members of the council, who were nearly uniform in their comments.
“People in my district are struggling,” said Councilwoman Maureen O’Brien, who represents a Mandeville-area district. “We are taxed enough.”
Her thoughts were echoed by T.J. Smith, the council’s lone black member, who represents a Slidell district.
“We are taxing people out of St. Tammany,” he said.
Both O’Brien’s and Smith’s comments were greeted with applause from some in the audience.
Anti-tax signs also were sprinkled throughout the audience, along with signs denouncing fracking and big-box stores in what is becoming an increasingly activist parish.
One speaker, Gary Leonard, of the group Concerned Citizens of St. Tammany, urged the council to freeze all millages and immediately study every department budget, including the library’s, to ensure that every penny is accounted for.
Councilman Steve Stefancik took a minute to admonish some members of the audience, saying none of them had showed up for the council’s hearings earlier this summer on the library budget.
Stefancik also urged them to return in September and October, when the council will hold several hearings to review the budget for the upcoming year.
In other millage debates, the council took a moment to praise Coroner Charles Preston, who took office in May and whose dedicated 2.96-mill tax also was up for renewal.
Preston thanked the council for its support and pointed out that his office had recently been removed from the Louisiana legislative auditor’s “noncompliant” list.
None of the 11 other millages up for renewal generated any debate, and all were renewed at their 2013 levels. They include millages for the parish’s general operating budget, drainage, the parish health center, the animal shelter, the Council on Aging, services for the disabled and six regional lighting districts.
Follow Faimon A. Roberts III on Twitter, @faimon.
Editor’s note: This story was changed on Aug. 8 to correct Dr. Argiro Morgan’s first name.