ELECTION 2021: Lafayette’s library system hangs in the balance of the Nov. 13 tax renewal

Library building with flag in front
Photo by Travis Gauthier

On Nov. 13, Lafayette Parish voters will decide whether to renew one of the Lafayette Parish Library System’s main sources of revenue. Without the $4.3 million the 1.84-mill tax brings in, two or more of Lafayette’s libraries could be forced to close. In other words, the future of Lafayette’s libraries hangs in the balance. 

And in a predictably low-turnout election, anything can happen, especially when political tensions run high, which they certainly are. 

Social conservatives who rallied against renewing a library millage in 2018 may again reject funding the library system as their outrage over a Drag Queen Storytime event continues to echo. 

A new wrinkle is wavering support from Northside voters, who have historically been a key base for the library. It’s possible many will turn against renewing this millage because the promise of a branch east of the Evangeline Thruway has not been fulfilled, two years after funds were committed. 

The range of outcomes from this vote is pretty simple:

  1. Don’t renew the millage, shut down two or more libraries
  2. Renew the millage, maintain the status quo
  3. Renew the millage, build a new Northside library

What happens if the tax is not renewed?

In the immediate future, not much. This millage stays on the books for another year, and there’s still time for the library to put this renewal back on the ballot next year. But if that second attempt fails, two or more libraries could be forced to close. 

Before the 2018 renewal failed, the system collected more than $13.5 million. It lost $3.3 million when voters rejected the renewal, many egged on by conservative political activists Citizen for a New Louisiana. (The margin was a razor-thin 650 votes with an 8% turnout.) 

If this second millage fails to renew, that would take away another $4.3 million, dropping the library system’s annual revenue below $7 million. It costs $12 million each year to operate all of its facilities, including the main library Downtown, four regional libraries, four smaller branches, a bookmobile and various outreach services.

In other words, without this second millage, the system will face a $5 million annual operating deficit. 

That’s simply too large to be closed through incremental cuts around the margins. The library spends $7.6 million on personnel costs alone. That means stabilizing the library’s finances would likely entail deciding which libraries to close and who would be among the potentially dozens of its 151 employees laid off, a catastrophic scenario. 

And this comes just after a major milestone. In 2019, when the West Regional Library opened in Scott, it marked the completion of a capital program approved by voters two decades ago to renovate the main library Downtown and build the four regional libraries. As a result of this investment, Lafayette built an award-winning library system. But without this second millage, there won’t be enough money to keep them all open.

What will happen if the tax is renewed?

The library system will then face another tough choice with constrained finances: maintain the status quo or build a new Northside library — though this choice will fall to the library’s appointed Board of Control and the Parish Council. 

There’s $8 million sitting in the library’s bank account that was appropriated by the former City-Parish Council in 2019 to build the new Northside branch. But since then there’s been no movement. 

The Board of Control could decide to proceed and use the money as intended. But doing so would require some shared sacrifice. Since losing the 2018 renewal, the system has operated at a deficit every year and with reduced reserves. The only way to free up the money needed to operate a new library is to reduce operating hours at the other locations. Library Director Danny Gillane has presented the board with a preliminary plan to do just that. 

At this point, it’s unclear what the board or Parish Council will do. That’s at least in part because they’re stuck in a “damned if they do, damned if they don’t” position. If they come out in support of the Northside library, they risk losing the support of voters who have called for reduced spending on the system and voted in officials who appointed a politically conservative library board. But if they come out against the Northside library, they risk losing the support of Northside residents, who have traditionally voted in favor of library millages. So if they show their cards and pick either side, they risk increasing the odds this millage renewal fails.

Will there be a new Northside library?

If this second millage doesn’t get renewed, this is an easy question to answer: No. In that scenario, the conversation will be about which libraries to close and the window of opportunity to build a new Northside library will have vanished.

If the second millage does get renewed, it’s a lot tougher to forecast. 

Even if the library board is open to the idea of building a new Northside library, there are still a number of political hurdles to overcome, including:

  • Will the board and the public OK a plan that reduces services at other branches to accommodate a new one? 
  • Will the public and the Parish Council support the cost of another expansion? 

How this will play out is really unclear. The library board has new leadership. Board President Robert Judge, a social conservative activist, has been an outspoken critic of the system and has said he wants to limit the library’s scope of operations. On the other hand, he said he could support a Northside regional library — even if it required closing another branch. 

Why build a Northside library?

North Lafayette is home to the highest rates of poverty in the parish. The fundamental purpose of libraries is to democratize access to information, whether that’s through books or computer labs or classes. Some Northside leaders have argued libraries are essential to closing the digital divide in their neighborhoods. Lafayette’s Downtown branch alone has logged more than a million computer sessions over the last eight years. 

While kids and adults in more affluent homes have the ability to buy their own books or computers and internet access, those dealing with poverty often don’t have that luxury. So the argument goes that the part of the parish that would benefit the most from having a library is the Northside.

There are neighborhoods that are geographically close to the Downtown branch but still face a major barrier to accessing library services — the Evangeline Thruway. Northside neighborhoods have the lowest rates of car ownership in the parish, but the Evangeline Thruway isn’t just unfriendly to pedestrians; it’s actively dangerous. Just this year, at least six people have died crossing the highway. Put simply, it’s not the kind of street that kids in particular should have to walk or bike across to get to a library.

While the Northside does feature a couple of smaller library branches, those don’t offer the same breadth of services as the regional libraries do and they’re west of the Thruway, cutting off major historic neighborhoods like McComb-Veazey. Community advocates have been asking for their own library for years. 

Politics and financial uncertainty have stalled this effort on the tracks. And discontent has grown so strong that some Northside leaders are suggesting that people vote against renewing this millage if they don’t get assurances that their library’s getting built.

What’s the outlook?

Fraught with uncertainty. A few years ago votes to renew library millages were total non-events. Lafayette’s libraries were a source of local pride, an apolitical community institution.

That’s all changed. 

And back then, Lafayette’s libraries were incredibly strong financially, operating with an annual surplus and tens of millions in savings. Now it’s savings are dwindling while its operating deficit risks exploding to a level that will force closures.

Whether libraries close will be determined at the ballot box by the voters of Lafayette Parish on Nov. 13. And regardless of what happens with this millage, more uncertainty still lies ahead — as the library system’s final millage will be up for renewal in a few years.