Stephanie Riegel: Does the East Baton Rouge Parish Library really need a new south branch?

When the East Baton Rouge Parish Library Board of Control asked voters for a tax increase in 2005, among the promises it made to the public was to build a new south branch. Ten years later, as the board prepares to request another millage hike, the south branch remains as elusive as ever.

The history of why the library hasn’t gotten built is as maddening as it is illustrative of the follies of government, and it begs the question: Do we really need a new south branch?

In case you’ve blocked it from memory, the south branch originally was set to be developed in the heart of Rouzan, Tommy Spinosa’s traditional neighborhood development in Southdowns. The library board began discussions with the developer as far back as 2007. Years later, in 2010, it finally reached the broad terms of a deal: Spinosa would donate the land for the library and do the surrounding infrastructure work; the board would build the new branch.

But Rouzan was slow getting off the ground, and the details of the agreement between the developer and the city-parish were never finalized. By the time the two sides got down to hammering out the specifics, they couldn’t agree. The board had concerns about Spinosa’s track record and wanted financial assurances he’d live up to his end of the bargain. He thought they were asking for too much.

After months of back and forth during much of 2013, the board decided to pull the plug on the Rouzan site and start over from scratch. It searched around for suitable sites, to no avail, so in 2014 it spent $10,000 on a site selection firm to identify locations. After months of waiting for a list and culling through them, it rejected them all for one reason or another.

Now it’s mid-2015 and the board has decided to hire a real estate agent to help it scout for potential properties that are not yet on the market. Though it won’t have to shell out money for the brokerage services up front, if it ends up buying or leasing a site, it will pay a commission to the agent on the back end. Given the history of the south branch search, the odds are reasonably good that sale or lease will never happen.

But perhaps that’s a good thing. Baton Rouge has 14 libraries, which averages to about one for every 29,000 residents in the parish. That ratio is on par with such cities as Chicago and Philadelphia, both of which have excellent public library systems. Yes, libraries are wonderful and invaluable to a community. And, personally speaking, I will always feel a particular affinity for the Baton Rouge libraries, having spent the better part of my first year here homeschooling my children in them.

But given the wasted time, energy and money over the past 10 years on the fruitless south branch search, it’s hard to make a compelling case at this point to continue the hunt—especially when you consider that the Bluebonnet branch and the shiny new main library on Goodwood, which ended up costing 20% more than its original $34 million pricetag, are within seven miles of each other.

Library Director Spencer Watts says the board did a market assessment many years ago, before he was even here, that suggests the Southdowns area and surrounding neighborhoods in that part of town are underserved. No doubt one could make the case that a new library would be utilized. But in the past 10 years, the face of public libraries has changed, and there are new ways to deliver services to an area—kiosks, for example—that are far less costly to develop than traditional branch buildings. Considering the challenges the board has encountered so far, perhaps it’s time to focus attention in that direction instead.

For the moment, though, the board is focused on getting more money from taxpayers. Later this month, it will ask the Metro Council to put an 11.1-mill property tax on the fall ballot, an increase over the 10.78 mills it currently receives. That 10.78-mill tax generates $40 million a year for the library system, which has an impressive fund balance of $57 million—more money than the city-parish has in reserves, and likely more than any other parish agency has lying around.

Watts and some of his board members have argued that without an increase they’ll deplete their reserves by 2016. That may sound chilling, but it’s not as though it would put the system under by any means. As long as the board is able to keep the system’s books in order, it could go to the market and borrow money to finance capital projects like other agencies do. Having a fat savings account is nice, but some would argue that we don’t pay property taxes so the government can squirrel away our money and sit on it.

As of press time, it’s unclear whether the Metro Council will put the tax increase on the ballot or not. Some council members have already voice strong opposition to the idea, saying it’s simply not necessary.

As others on the council mull their decision, they may want to be wary of any promises they’re made by the board.

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