Use of Iberia library millage to fund levee debated

Advocate staff photo by BRYAN TUCK -- The main branch of the Iberia Parish Library in New Iberia.
Advocate staff photo by BRYAN TUCK -- The main branch of the Iberia Parish Library in New Iberia.

A new push for a property tax for a 26-mile levee project Iberia Parish voters rejected in the spring involves using a portion of the parish library system’s unused millage rate.

Voters approved a 6-mill property tax to fund parish libraries, however, only 4.5 mills has been collected in recent years.

Iberia Parish Councilman David Ditch has proposed dedicating all or a portion of the unused 1.5 mills to fund projects of the Iberia Parish Levee, Hurricane and Conservation District.

“All we’re talking about is giving the public an opportunity to redirect the mill and a half they’re not using to the coastal restoration district,” Ditch said. “In essence, the library would still get their funding close to their current rates.”

A meeting on the proposal is scheduled at 6 p.m. on Sept. 11 in Iberia Council chambers inside the parish courthouse. The council likely won’t discuss or vote on a tax proposition until its Sept. 18 meeting, Ditch said.

Kathleen Miles, library system director, said the 4.5 mills generates about $2.2 million annually and the library system has about $3 million in its reserve fund.

Voters approved a 6-mill tax to support libraries, and “we work on 4.5 because we can,” Miles said.

“It’s nice to know that it’s there in the future,” she said. “You know from going to the grocery store everything’s going up. Right now, 4.5 works. Ten years from now, it may not. It gives me wiggle room to keep services the way they are for the long haul.”

This spring, voters rejected a 5-mill property tax and half-cent sales tax to pay a for 26-mile levee along the parish’s coastal border to protect against tidal surges caused by tropical storms and hurricanes.

The property tax proposition failed by 12 votes, while the half-cent sales tax failed by 207 votes.

Ronnie Gonsoulin, chairman of the Iberia Parish Levee, Hurricane, and Conservation District, said the district considered bringing the same dual tax scenario back to voters, and suggested the unused library millage as an alternative.

“After exploring it, we’re trying to show that this is a better use of the taxes,” Gonsoulin said.

He said funding from parish residents is needed to leverage available private and governmental funding.

“You cannot go with your hand out and ask someone to give you a grant today because the state wants you to match some funds,” Gonsoulin said.

The levee project calls for building an 18-foot-tall levee from the Iberia and Vermilion parish lines to the Commercial Canal, and a 14-foot levee going eastward from the Commercial Canal to the St. Mary Parish line.

Iberia Parish Library board member Kitty Courts criticized the proposal to divert any of the library millage away from libraries and questioned the need for a levee.

“Voters have voted on these funds to run the library,” Courts said. “These funds legally belong to the library. They cannot be legally used to fund any other project.”

Any changes to the millage would require voter approval.

Miles said the library’s millage is up for renewal in the spring.

The levee millage likely failed in the spring, Miles said, because voters didn’t understand its need.

“People are up in arms that any part of their library millage would go anywhere but the library,” Miles said. “In almost every phone call I’ve received, people make the mention that they didn’t know anything about the levees.

“I think if the levee district would go back and regroup and go out there and campaign in a way that people would understand,” Miles said, “I think they’d have a lot more support than they think they did.”

Gonsoulin said educational outreach about the levee district and the levee project continue.

“What we want to do is for the good of everyone,” he said. “Otherwise, we have no access to state and federal dollars.”