Monday, September 13, 2010

#1 - Libraries, Levies, and Lessons on Citizenship

Not wanting to disappoint the library administration lackey who monitors my blog to determine if I am stirring up controversy - I decided to write a thought provoking post about the upcoming library levy. Even though I no longer live in the county, I am now and forever will be passionate about libraries and the valuable services they offer no matter where they are located.

I have always voted YES for public libraries and public schools because I believe they are the cornerstones of our democracy. An educated populous is not only better qualified to make decisions about our government, they can also make more positive choices about their own individual lives. Much of the social unrest, political tension, and intolerance around the world is fueled by ignorance. The more we know about ourselves and others, the more we can advance peace and prosperity for all.
Liberty without learning is always in peril; 
Learning without liberty is always in vain. 
                                 John F Kennedy
I strongly disagree with those who say libraries are no longer relevant. Now more than ever we need free access to information and trained librarians to help us separate fact from fiction. We are closer to the manipulative use of information suggested in books such as Fahrenheit 451 and 1984 than anyone would have considered possible.

Unfortunately, freedom isn't free. It doesn't matter if I have no children in school or never use the library it is my civic duty to make sure these institutions are available for ALL. The 43 cents per day I pay for my local library is worth every penny.

Just because it is clear to me that all citizens need to support institutions such as libraries, doesn't mean all requests for money are legitimate. Due to past inconsistencies and questionable management practices, I have some concerns about the levy request from my former library.

Doing the math for any levy is not easy because the rules regarding the 1% tax limitation are so complex.  I would highly recommend reading the information and explanations posted on the county assessor's website. Ask your local librarian for some help if you have trouble finding the resources you need to understand how total assessed value, new construction, and levy limits effect your tax bill.

After digesting the information posted by the assessor, I checked out the Vote YES for Libraries website and discovered a claim that they are asking for half as much money as the failed levy effort in 2007.

The truth is, the library couldn't ask for much more than the estimated $3.65 million in this request because they can't levy more than 50 cents per thousand of assessed value and this measure will bring them up to about 47.5 cents per thousand. One reason the library is asking for so much less is because total assessed values have fallen dramatically over the past few years. The amount per thousand is actually only 1/2 cent less than in 2007.

Just for giggles, I checked the numbers to see what the tax bill would have been on my former residence if the levy passed in 2007 and what it would be if this measure is successful. With the 2007 measure I would have paid approximately $180 for the library and in 2010 I would pay approximately $195. This levy might be half as much for million dollar property owners, but those of us in the middle might be paying the same or a bit more (not that 53 cents a day is unreasonable).

In 2007 the library was, according to their own statements, asking for $6.7 million. They planned to expand hours, buy new materials, upgrade technology, replenish reserves and pay for the additional personnel required to staff new and/or expanded library buildings. This time around they say they are asking for half as much and still plan to do all of the above PLUS provide capital to build and/or expand buildings.

Either the amount asked for in 2007 was way off base, the amount asked for now is too little, or they have a magic wand hidden somewhere. The story being told is that this is a new more responsible management team with new more responsible ideas and the sloppy figures from before should be attributed to folks who are no longer at the library. Truth is, this is the same library director with much of the same management team and board of trustees who asked for too much in 2007. Given this fact, it is no wonder some are saying, "Fool me once shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me".

Although I am intimately aware of the need for more spacious and efficient library facilities, the capital requested for new/expanded buildings is a concern to me. My concern comes from my experience with architects who are more interested in building monuments to photograph for slick design magazines than functional spaces for real people. Money doesn't equal success when it comes to designing a library. Often an innovative reorganization of existing space, a modest addition of new space, or the repurposing of a found building will function better than a flashy new structure.

So what is the bottom line? How should a responsible citizen vote? You will need to make an informed decision of your own.

If I still lived in this county, I would have to vote YES for the levy in spite of my reservations. Thanks to cost cutting efforts and more responsible budgeting practices by the new CFO, the library is on a firmer financial footing than before. For the sake of county citizens who need library services, I hope the levy passes and I pray the CFO, who commutes by bicycle, lives long and continues to keep a watchful eye on how the money is spent.


  1. Hello again from the above mentioned county! We always welcome your wise counsel down here.

    My comment at this point is that someone should look into the amount of surplus that the former director had set aside for rainy days such as we are now experiencing. The current director stated in a staff meeting I attended that "You can't ask for a levy increase if you have money in the bank." So they spent it--on furniture, more staff for IT and all those funny new positions in administration and promotions for some of the loyal gang.

    So, let's have a spending spree and then get the public to give us more! First we will be good, responsible public servants, then we will threaten. One or the other should work.

    No way will I vote for this levy, and if anybody has some good ideas for bumper stickers to discourage others from supporting it, I hope they post them here!

  2. My apologies to the person who sent the last comment. I removed names and location from the message because it has been recommended that I not to make specific reference to the library or any individual. I think we all know where and who we are talking about.

    Also for clarification - the space planning project that resulted in the purchase of new furniture was initiated and budgeted by the former director. The other expenses noted were by the current administration along with a six digit fee to a incompetent marketing company that was hired following the last levy failure.