It’s been less than six months since the voters of Iberia Parish said no to funding the construction of a massive levee system by raising their property and sales taxes, yet that isn't stopping one parish councilman's push to use the public library system as an alternative funding source for the multi-million dollar undertaking.
|Iberia Parish Councilman David Ditch|
When Iberia Parish voters hit the polls April 16, the ballot included two 30-year tax proposals: a 5 mills property tax and a half-cent sales tax to be used as a funding source for the Iberia Parish Hurricane, Levee and Conservation District and its plans to construct a protective levee system to encompass the low-lying, flood-prone areas of the parish. Though it was close, both proposals failed, with 52.79 percent voting against the half-cent sales tax and 50.16 percent of voters rejecting the 5 mill property tax.
|Iberia Parish Councilman Ricky Gonsoulin|
Recently, a “Plan B” has been hatched, one that aims to divert money from the Iberia Parish Library System and give it to the levee district. The idea is the brainchild of David Ditch, a freshmen member of the Iberia Parish Council who has received backing from the local newspaper, and it appears a majority of the parish council members are on board including another freshman councilman, Rickey Gonsoulin, a sugar cane farmer and property owner who arguably stands to benefit from the construction of such a levee. Gonsoulin’s cousin, it’s worth noting, is Ronnie Gonsoulin, also a property owner/sugar cane farmer and the board chairman for the levee district.
Ditch’s reasoning for the fund redirection is two-fold, and centers on the library’s voter-approved millage tax and its fund balance of more than $5.6 million. The library only collects 4.43 of the 6 mills it’s approved to levy in property taxes, leaving 1.57 mills, or about $2.3 million a year in uncollected revenue. Ditch’s plan calls for rolling up the library's millage to the full 6 mills and redirecting the revenues generated by the additional 1.57 mills to the levee district, which, he argues, could then be used to obtain matching funds that are available to the parish thanks to the BP oil spill settlement.
The Daily Iberian stamped its approval on Ditch’s plan in an Aug. 9 editorial by Managing Editor Jeff Zeringue, who points to a taxpayer-funded levee constructed in Lafourche Parish as testament to the benefit of tapping into library revenues. In excerpts from that editorial, Zeringue argues:
Eliminating the Iberia Parish Library system would be a disservice to parish residents, but giving up on the idea that levees are not needed in this coastal parish is to give up on the people who use libraries. Although the idea of rededicating the library millage met with the expected consternation, the concept of reassessing the areas that money is being spent and possibly redirecting some millages to fund a coastal levee should be explored. The knee-jerk reaction that should have been expected was expressed by Parish Councilman Lloyd Brown, suggesting the proposal was to close the libraries and eliminate employees. That is not the proposal’s intention. Launching a discussion into how the 61.16 mills that are charged to property owners in Iberia Parish are spent is a worthy cause. Anyone not convinced that a coastal levee is needed here need only look to Lafourche Parish.
Lafourche Parish got a jumpstart on its levees and has benefited from tens of millions of dollars from state and federal sources because they were willing to spend locally generated tax money. Iberia Parish voters did not approve two tax proposals this spring, so the next step is logical. Assess where existing taxes are spent and possibly give voters a chance to redirect that money to a build and maintain a levee.
When the millions from the BP settlement start rolling in 2017 when Louisiana’s share of offshore oil royalties are ready to be spent on coastal projects — the only place that money can be spent — will Iberia Parish be ready to close the only gap in a coastal levee system or will we remain vulnerable?
Daily Iberian readers got a second dose of the plan’s merits in an Aug. 23 guest editorial by Ditch, where he touts the merits of his plan and reiterates the need for immediacy in getting the ball rolling on the levee’s construction:
[O]ur libraries are holding a huge surplus of taxpayer funds. In official documents the Library Board reported both in 2011 and 2012 that they took in total revenues of approximately $2.45 million per year in taxpayer dollars. Their overall expenditures during that period were only $1.9 million per year; a difference of over one-half million dollars that was unspent each year.
[T]he Library Board has reported they have additional reserves just sitting in bank accounts totaling over $3.5 million in taxpayer money. While our community is unprotected and we face potentially massive insurance costs there is no reason for taxpayer funds already collected to just sit in a bank account when they could be used to help mitigate these risks.
Despite the assurances given by Ditch and The Daily Iberian that neither the library nor its patrons will feel the effects of the redirected revenues, not all Iberia Parish residents are convinced. It didn't take long for a "Save the Iberia Parish Library" Facebook page to emerge, which as of Wednesday, had a total of 1,088 supporters.
In a recent interview with KLFY TV 10, Levee District Chairman Ronnie Gonsoulin argues the issue is being misrepresented as a library versus levee fight. Like Ditch and the Daily Iberian's Zeringue, Gonsoulin backs up his argument for tapping into library funds by depicting the levee as key to the survival of Iberia Parish. Here's what he tells KLFY: “[I]f we do not get this levee system, we may not have a future for this parish. The people are already being taxed, so why not use that money to try to get matching funding now and at least start the levee project. Why not be fiscally responsible and use that [library] money to get started?”
Library board member Kitty Courts tells The IND that Ditch's plan is not as cut and dried as it's being depicted by its supports. In fact, Courts says if Ditch’s plan is successful, it could mean closing the doors to seven of the library’s eight existing branches, with all services, and jobs for that matter, consolidated into one centralized location. That, she says, would translate into reductions in both jobs and services.
“Libraries are centers of information, education, culture, entertainment and reading centers,” says Courts. “There are many people who live in today’s world who do not own a computer and are fully dependent upon the library system for their computer use. Computers are used at the libraries to check mail, apply for jobs, social services, social security, Medicare, Medicaid, research. Many school children are dependent on the library for homework assignments, reading materials and research for projects. There are many events people attend at the library, there are workshops, there are students attending online universities or taking online courses and can get certification at the library for these courses.”
The proposal appears problematic on several fronts. Not only does it ignore the levee tax’s recent failure at the polls, but a review of the comments made to the media by Ditch and other supporters of the plan shows an argument being framed through an “or-else” guise of impending doom: Fund this levee or Iberia Parish will cease to exist.
It's also questionable whether it's even legal to use dedicated funds from a voter-approved tax for an unrelated initiative — one in which voters have already had their say. It's unlikely that Ditch and his supporters don't want what's best for the future of their parish, but that may be the problem, because by fighting for what they consider the greater good, it appears they're ignoring the wishes of the people.