The gist: Two library expansions and a new Northside branch may be reconsidered if the library’s property tax is not increased to offset revenue lost from declining commercial property values in the parish. The Lafayette Parish Library System stands to lose almost $750,000 in annual revenue if the Parish Council approves of Mayor-President Josh Guillory’s plan to leave it out of the increases for other parish functions. This decline would increase the library system’s operating deficit next year to $1.8 million, putting it on track to zero out its fund balance in four years.
Catch up, quickly: For the first time since the 1980s, the total value of property in the parish fell this year. As a result, all local property tax recipients face declining revenue. But state law affords them the ability to raise property tax rates to maintain existing revenues. The Parish Council voted to increase all property taxes under its purview, but Guillory used his veto power to demand that property taxes not be increased for the library, the airport, CREATE and the funds for animal/mosquito control and public health. New ordinances were introduced without increases for Guillory’s targets at a September Parish Council meeting and are up for final adoption Oct. 6.
Guillory argues the library system doesn’t need the revenue. In his veto message, Guillory states, “After a thorough review of the last few years [sic] fiscal year-end audits, it is readily apparent that the budgeted amounts for each of the fiscal years exceeds identified needs. Quite simply, the agencies affected by these reductions in revenue can continue to provide their essential services to the citizens of Lafayette Parish even with this reduced revenue.”
Guillory’s “thorough review” did not include discussing the library’s identified needs with either its director or its board. “I’m just disappointed that no one in the LCG parish administration has reached out to us to ask us about the true financial picture of the library system,” says Teresa Elberson, library director. LCG Communications Director Jamie Angelle confirmed that Guillory did not meet with any of the library’s leadership before making his decision.
“There’s no way we can cut $750,000 out of our operating budget without laying off staff or closing facilities, and that’s not what we’re planning on doing at this time,” Elberson says. “We’ve already made cuts in the last year, knowing we lost the millage. And we’re still dipping into fund balance.”
If the library loses this revenue, its annual operating deficit will increase from $1.1 million to $1.8 million next year. At that rate, the library’s $7.8 million fund balance would be depleted in just a few years.
Two years ago, the library had a $2 million annual operating surplus and a $40 million fund balance. Then one of its millages failed to renew, taking $3 million per year with it. After that, former Mayor-President Joel Robideaux spearheaded rededicating $10 million of the library’s fund balance to drainage and parish parks and former Councilman Kenneth Boudreaux championed appropriating $8 million to build a new library on the Northside.
Now this economic downturn is threatening to stretch the library’s finances to the breaking point. In the 1980s, total assessed property values fell for five years in a row. So the library’s finances may continue to lose ground while the odds of its revenue rebounding any time soon aren’t high.
Elberson plans to present the Library board with a series of options to balance the library’s budget at the October and November meetings. “We’ve not made any decisions at this point,” she says. “We’re looking at all our options.”
One of those options is to delay or kill the expansions of the North and East Regional Libraries and the construction of a new Northside library. Some $15 million has already been appropriated into the library’s capital fund for these projects. So the library could move that money back into its general fund, which would mean Carencro and Youngsville don’t get to expand and enhance their libraries and the Northside wouldn’t get its own library. Elberson has halted the construction process for all three of these projects to give the board a chance to weigh in on what to do next.
The fate of the Northside library was somewhat up in the air even before this latest loss, but this could be the final nail in its coffin. “The money is in our capital project for the building, but there was no money in our budget to begin with to operate that facility,” says Elberson. “Right now there are no funds. With the loss of that millage, there’s no operating millage money to operate a new facility. We can’t build a library that we can’t operate.”
Guillory continues to argue that government must live within its means and change the way it operates. “There are many avenues that the library could take to move forward with some of their plans. One of which is they can ask the people to decide how it moves forward because these are ultimately their libraries. Because they are the only ones that can decide on increasing taxes,” says Guillory in a statement to The Current. “Or they can work on a new model for doing business and focus their efforts on making a Northside library their top priority.”
By contrast, Guillory has spoken in favor of raising 75% of LCG’s parishwide property taxes without a public vote. These include the millages for roads, drainage, courthouse and jail.
If your property is worth $250,000, raising the library’s millage would cost you less than $5 per year. If your property is worth $1 million, the increase would be less than $300. If your home is worth less than $75,000, there would be no increase as you don’t owe any property taxes because of the homestead exemption.
It’s likely that the library will be forced to do more with less. A Parish Council member can amend the ordinances to restore the proposed increases. But a veto hangs over any effort to stabilize library revenues, which means a four-vote majority is needed to make the restoration veto proof.