Roads, Libraries, and the Mess We Are In

By Kevin Shannahan/Opinion

Overwrought histrionics worthy of Chicken Little, class and race divisions, the urban vs. rural divide, and money-the upcoming election concerning the rededication of the library tax is one craptastic mess. That we find ourselves at such an impasse is the result of years of mistrust, dysfunction, and politics as usual. We simply cannot continue on this path, certainly not if we wish to keep what we have, let alone grow as a parish. It is well past time for an adult conversation. What is best for the residents of Natchitoches parish?

The parish’s roads are indeed a disaster. Potholes, washouts, lack of money, lack of focus, short-term repairs that do not last and a lack of trust combine in a toxic stew of dysfunction years, if not decades, in the making. None of that changes the fact that maintaining the parish roads is a fundamental responsibility of the parish government, a responsibility that they are manifestly failing to fulfill.

The library system is likewise a responsibility of the parish government. By all accounts, they enjoy the better relationship with the voters, as their dedicated taxes pass while those for road maintenance seldom do.  Over the years, this has resulted in the library being relatively well funded while the rest of the parish government is considerably less so. I grew up in upstate New York and between that, college in Georgia, and the Air Force, I had lived all over the country before moving here 29 years ago. I got my first library card at age ten, one of 30 or so I’ve accumulated over my lifetime. I think I have a sufficient basis for comparison to say that Louisiana libraries are well run, wonderful places staffed by exactly the kind of people one wants to see as public servants.

While one may indulge in all the finger pointing one wishes, such does absolutely nothing to address our parish’s problems. In this case, there is a governmental body with two competing priorities, both fundamental responsibilities. The situation is complicated by the decrepit roads being a mostly rural problem, entirely so at the extremes. Natchitoches parish is a big place, almost all of it area-wise is rural. Many city residents seldom travel far into the countryside. They do not regularly experience the washouts, potholes, mud, and damage to their vehicles. They have never seen a school bus or ambulance unable to reach an address. The situation is further complicated by the lack of trust as evidenced by the repeated failure of taxes dedicated to road maintenance while the library ones pass.

I’d like to see a serious conversation free from histrionics with the aim of allocating scarce resources to the benefit of the whole parish. There will never be enough money to do all we would wish. Making informed choices for the good of all is the very basis of government.

Natchitoches Parish encompasses a huge area, almost all of it rural. We need to take a careful and unbiased look at every mile of road in the parish. Does this stretch of road need to be maintained by the parish? Does it constitute a wise use of public funds to repair and maintain?

I would like to see the same approach taken for the library system. The opponents of the tax rededication trumpet the disasters that will befall the parish’s citizens if as much as a dime is taken from the library budget. Closures, layoffs, and cutbacks in services will be the result, leaving the citizens of the parish awash in illiteracy. The opponents of the tax rededication overstate their case, to put it mildly. The same careful and unbiased look at the library budget as given to the road maintenance budget would no doubt yield savings.

Making choices between often difficult alternatives is the very essence of what governments are supposed to do. The funds belong to neither the library nor the roads. They belong to the citizens of the parish. I have had a Natchitoches library card in my wallet for 29 years. Obtaining it was the second thing I did after I moved here. The first was registering to vote. I live in the city and have never driven the worst roads in the parish. I will be voting to rededicate the tax, albeit very reluctantly. The present situation is simply not conducive to good governance.