Declare Funding Independence | BackTalk

There is no such thing as a totally independent library board when the library’s funding stream is controlled by another entity. Libraries will never achieve consistently satisfactory funding levels as long as they are one of many agencies governed and/or solely funded by a larger political unit. When public libraries compete for funds with police, fire, sewers, schools, planning, and assessor’s offices, they lose. The tremendous cuts and closings weathered by public libraries in the UK over the past decade provide a cautionary tale.

There is no such thing as a totally independent library board when the library’s funding stream is controlled by another entity. Libraries will never achieve consistently satisfactory funding levels as long as they are one of many agencies governed and/or solely funded by a larger political unit. When public libraries compete for funds with police, fire, sewers, schools, planning, and assessor’s offices, they lose. The tremendous cuts and closings weathered by public libraries in the UK over the past decade provide a cautionary tale.

The solution seems obvious. Remove public libraries from the competitive environment of town, city, county, and school governance and provide an opportunity for the public to provide direct tax support. Public libraries have the opportunity not only to survive but to prosper if separate taxing authorities are created for them with total independence. This will allow the people at the local level to determine how their community library should be supported, by exercising their franchise.

As an example, compare Grand Rapids, MI, with Des Moines. They are both municipal libraries, but Grand Rapids has an independent funding stream separate from city coffers. Grand Rapids has per capita support of around $50, while Des Moines is in the low to mid-$30s. I know both communities pretty well, and the quality of service delivery in Grand Rapids is definitely superior. I’d guess if you compared the Ann Arbor District Library, MI, and Madison Public Library, WI, you’d get similar results. Finally, you can compare the Kalamazoo Public Library (KPL), MI, whose per capita support is around $100, with any comparably sized (100,000–150,000 people) municipal library and get results that show Kalamazoo is delivering at a higher level. (The author previously served as director of KPL.)

 

THE STATE(S) OF FUNDING

Currently, only about one quarter or less of all states provide enabling legislation that allows public libraries to become taxing authorities: Michigan, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Missouri, Oklahoma, Colorado, Nevada, Washington, and Oregon. (Kansas has a law that, to the best of my knowledge, only affects Topeka. New York has a School District law that lets public libraries, under certain circumstances, seek direct funding. A Texas law might help the tiniest of libraries.)

To fix this, the American Library Association (ALA) should draft model legislation that could be used to change that nationwide. It can use existing legislation from states that already permit this as the basis. ALA does many good things but has never focused on how public libraries can improve ongoing operational funding. What better time than now?

The legislation in states that permit local public libraries to achieve independent taxing authority has certain similarities: most legislation appears to be permissive, i.e., libraries have the option to become independent but aren’t required to do so. Tax caps are often present, and there are often requirements that library taxing authorities serve a multijurisdictional territory.

Getting legislation passed at the state level will be difficult. A rigorous long-term effort from state libraries, state library associations, and public library leaders will be required.

The hurdles to passing such legislation will be similar from state to state. The local political subdivision that currently funds the public library will need to be convinced that giving up control is in its best interest. Oddly this may be easier to accomplish in challenging economic times.

Those who govern at the local level tend to have a strong dislike of making budget cuts in programs that they know are valued by their constituency. Therefore, if given an opportunity to “save” a library by ceding control to an elected or appointed board and allowing citizens to make a decision to tax themselves to support it, many elected officials may well acquiesce. KPL, for instance, abandoned a 100-year history as a school district library in 1990 to become an independent district library with the full support of the school superintendent. The superintendent realized that union negotiations would be far simpler without having to accommodate library staff and he could refocus the Board of Education’s attention solely on school issues.

All the library community is asking for is the ability to have a direct financial relationship with local taxpayers to determine what value residents place on their local library.

 

GOING IT ALONE

When independent governance is achieved it should appear seamless. The major changes for the library will be in the business office. As an independent entity the library becomes responsible for its own revenues and expenditures. While much of this might appear to be daunting, the reward is the ability to generate more money from the local tax base. If people love libraries, and survey after survey says they do, then asking the public to increase average support to $50 or more per capita should be possible.

For public libraries to remain viable in the 21st century will require reallocation of existing funds and the generation of additional revenue streams. Independent governance supported by a dedicated and secure tax offers the best possibility to achieve that goal.


Saul Amdursky retired in 2010 after directing public libraries at the city, county, regional, and district level over the course of a 39-year career. He has led libraries in five states and one Canadian province. He was the Director of the Kalamazoo Public Library in 2002 when it was selected as LJ's Library of the Year.

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