St. Landry council to consider parish library tax

A yearslong effort to create a parishwide library system in St. Landry Parish is one step closer to a vote.

The St. Landry Parish Council is set to decide Wednesday whether to place a property tax on the ballot in May that, if approved by voters, would fund the first parishwide public library system.

A parishwide system is needed “to build intellectual capital” in the parish, said LSU at Eunice Library Director Gerald Patout.

He is among the 16 community leaders on the St. Landry Parish Library Coalition, a group that came together to push for a parishwide library system.

Discussions about the need for a parishwide system have been ongoing for the past six to eight years, said Bruce Gaudin, an Opelousas attorney and chairman of the library coalition.

He said the group proposed a 5.5-mill property tax, which would cost the owner of a $100,000 home who claims homestead exemption $13.75 a year.

St. Landry Parish is the only parish in the state without a parishwide library system, and Gaudin said neighboring parishes have had parishwide library funding systems in place for almost 70 years.

In 1991, residents in Cankton, Sunset, Grand Coteau and surrounding areas approved a 5.75-mill property tax, creating the South St. Landry Library District to fund a library in Sunset, but the only parishwide library initiative was placed on the ballot in 1965 and failed by 24 votes, Gaudin said.

Gaudin said the plan is to remove the existing South St. Landry District from the new parishwide proposal.

Opelousas, Krotz Springs, Washington and Eunice have city-run libraries, though a report prepared by state librarian Rebecca Hamilton states those libraries “fall below basic standards in many areas and have woefully inadequate buildings and not enough space.”

Patout said a parishwide system is a more efficient way to offer library services because library networks can share resources and save on personnel costs.

“City budgets, just like state budgets, are tight,” Patout said. “A lot of pressure is being put on them, so the library’s not a priority. Services are cut. They don’t get books. All these libraries here have gone at it on their own.”

He points to neighboring cities such as Lafayette and Ville Platte, both of which have constructed new libraries in recent years.

“Not only have they invested in buildings, but they’ve built community capital with book collections, and they’ve saved money along the way,” Patout said.

The parishwide system would employ a library director and be overseen by a five- to seven-member library board appointed by the council, Patout said.

Gaudin said in a recent letter to Parish Council members that the parish is plagued by high illiteracy rates along with low graduation rates and scant elementary school libraries due to budget cuts at the St. Landry Parish School Board.

“The time to reverse these trends is now,” Gaudin said.

Council members voiced concerns at their last meeting over whether voters would approve any hike in taxes, but Gaudin and Patout said they are optimistic the tax will pass.

The library system effort has the support of Parish President Bill Fontenot, who was successful in convincing voters to approve a sales tax increase in October for road improvements, Patout said.

“There’s a group of anti-tax people saying we don’t need libraries. That’s not the truth,” Patout said.

“The whole information literacy process in this parish has been diffused and left up to someone else. It’s really starting to show itself. I think there’s a huge need now for people to become more information savvy and know how to use information.

“Without a foundation, what’s coming 25 to 30 years down the road won’t be easy to digest.”