Campaign Q&A Documents: Chemung County Library District

Chemung County Library District logotype -- 'our libraries, our decision'

The library system seems okay as it is—why do we have to make this change?

While library services at all Chemung County libraries are modern, responsive to the public, and technologically current, the libraries’ primary funding source—Chemung County—has been hit hard by unfunded mandates such as Medicaid in recent years.  That leaves a shrinking percentage of the budget to cover all other services such as the libraries. 

In 2003, with a quarter of a million dollars cut from the library budgets, we were forced to close two libraries—one on Elmira’s Southside, and one in Elmira Heights—arguably the communities with the most poverty, and therefore, the most need for free access to information and library services.  We also had to lay off 20 percent of our staff in the remaining libraries.

At that time, the county warned us that they would need to cut our budget by another quarter million dollars in 2005.

Clearly, without some kind of fundamental change, more libraries will close, and services at our remaining libraries will be crippled further.

But it doesn’t have to be that way.  The trustees of both libraries are proposing a Chemung County Library District, which will preserve the remaining libraries, and give Chemung County residents direct control of  library spending.  In effect, the boards are saying, these are our libraries and this is our decision.

Will this result in an additional or new tax?

No.  This will not result in a new tax or an additional tax.  This is simply a different taxing mechanism to generate the same funding from the same people for the same services.  You are currently being taxed to support the library.  That will not change. You’ll just see it called out as a line item on your county tax bill rather than having it lumped into the overall county tax bill as it is now.

How will the taxing mechanism be different from the way we are taxed for libraries today?

graphic shows change in taxing mechanism for Chemung County Library District

Today, the libraries require approximately $2.3 million to operate.  We receive government funding at the state, county and local municipality levels.  We are also supported by private donations, and through operating income such as the collection of library fines.

Under the Library District scenario, the state funding of $226,000 would not change. 

Private funding would increase by $11,500, due to a recent bequest that will increase operating revenues. 

At the county level, the $1.37 million the county now funds, plus another $228,000 for the debt service, would be taken off the overall county budget.  Together, that $1.6 million would be transferred over to the Library District budget. 

$304,000 currently comes from the towns and villages of Big Flats, Erin, Elmira and Horseheads.  This means that all county residents pay some taxes to support the libraries, and then on top of that, some residents, depending on where they live, actually pay more through their municipal taxes.  In the Library District scenario, the municipalities’ portion of the libraries’ support would be equally distributed across all county residents, dropping the municipalities’ contributions to zero.  This may cause a slight change in the amount a resident pays to support the library, since some were paying a few cents more per day and some were paying a few cents less in the old scenario, but with the Library District, everyone will be paying the same amount.

So, actually, rather than being simply a different taxing mechanism, this is an IMPROVED taxing mechanism, in that it stabilizes funding for the libraries; it spreads the responsibility for the library funding equally across all taxpayers, regardless of where they live; and it gives more control to county residents since they will vote directly on the library budget.

Will the county lower our taxes if it no longer has to appropriate funds for the libraries?

Chemung County Executive Tom Santulli has publicly pledged to take the $1.6 million that currently supports the libraries under the old system out of the county budget.  Likewise, the libraries will not be asking the local municipalities to pony up the $304,000 as they have in the past.

Therefore, the Chemung County Library District will NOT result in a new tax burden.  Everybody wins in this scenario.  Even those residents who have not paid their fair share in the past, will only pay a slightly higher amount now, and will have the added benefit of direct control over future library spending.

How much will I be paying anyway?  What’s the bottom line?

Supporting the library district will cost every Chemung County resident, regardless of where they live, 52.5 cents per thousand dollars of assessed property valuation.

That means that for a house with an assessed valuation of $50,000, a resident will pay just $26 per year.  That’s $2.16 per month—less than it costs to rent a movie in most cases.  Come to the library and borrow one movie a month, and you’ll earn back the investment you’ve made in this fabulously valuable community asset.

How will residents have more control over future library funding under the Library District plan?

As part of the formation of the Library District, a 15-member board of trustees will be elected to govern the libraries.  Each legislative district within the county will elect one representative.

Each year, the board will propose a budget, and voters will go to the polls to adopt or reject it.  If voters ever reject a proposed budget, it reverts back to the previous year’s budget.  There will never be a change in the budget unless voters approve it.

I’ve heard that the base library budget will be higher than total expenses now.  Is that true?

The base budget for the first year of operation for the Library District will be three percent higher to allow for inflation.

What are you doing to ensure a smooth transition of leadership from the current library boards of directors and the 15 elected Library District representatives?

To take advantage of the experience and knowledge of current board members while we transition to the proposed governing structure, in the first year, the 15 members will be appointed from a combination of members from the existing boards. 

Those 15 individuals will draw straws to determine how long each of their terms will be, ranging from one year to five years in length.

Then, beginning in 2007, the three members who received one-year terms will leave the board and elections will be held to fill their places.  This will happen for the next five years until all appointed board members are replaced with elected members.

Why should I support the library if I don’t use it?  Why not just charge a fee to anyone who uses the library and then it can support itself?

First, libraries provide equal access to information and computer resources.  That means libraries give everyone—including people living in poverty—the opportunity to better themselves and to become fully contributing members of society.  Free public libraries are at the heart of a strong democracy.

Second, libraries support literacy.  This is crucial for low-income children since studies show a direct correlation between poverty and illiteracy.  Our libraries do not have the power to end poverty, but we can, and must, attempt to break its connection to illiteracy.

Third, free public libraries enable adult workers to educate themselves—learning how to start and operate a business, increase their knowledge for a promotion, and so forth.  Working class families rely on the library.

Likewise, libraries may be the primary means of accessing arts and culture in many people’s lives.

And then you have the flip side—no one wants to invest in a community that doesn’t invest in a library.  We need a thriving library system to attract new businesses and hard-to-recruit employees.  And when we do, that in turn, leads to higher property values.

And finally, by offering facilities that are open to the public, that welcome everyone, libraries build community.  Of the people, by the people, and for the people…libraries are truly democratic institutions.

I use my local library all the time, and I like how it operates now.  Will the Library District change my library?

Our libraries currently provide excellent services, and library patrons won’t see any appreciable difference in services and programming as a result of the formation of the district.  Instead, with a stable revenue stream, services and programming will be preserved.

In fact, with the efficiencies gained in consolidating many administrative tasks, professional staff will be able to spend more time on important activities such as choosing new books, CDs, and DVDs to add to the libraries’ resources.  They also will have more time for conducting story hours, arts programs, and special educational sessions for adults on topics such as genealogy research. They’ll be able to beef up computer instruction for patrons of all ages, and train staff on newer technologies so that reference questions can be answered in a timely and accurate manner.

In other words, we’ll conserve and preserve what we already have, and quite possibly make improvements on our original investments.

The formation of the Library District will not result in any kind of uniformity effort.  Our libraries will remain our libraries with their distinctive personalities and local programming.

Remember, this plan is being put forth by library trustees and other long-time supporters of the libraries—it is their fervent desire to do nothing but strengthen the libraries, and our communities, in the process.

And under the proposed governance structure, there will be representatives elected from each area of the county, and thus, the needs of each community's individual library will still be brought to the Library District table for discussion. 

With the pervasive presence of the Internet, why do we need libraries at all?

First, people will always need access to books—especially children learning to read.

Also, libraries aren’t just books anymore.  Libraries are free distribution points for information of all kinds.  The Steele Memorial Library installed its first computers designed for Internet access in September 1995.  Each library facility had one computer to provide public access to the Internet at that time.  Now, throughout the county, there are more than 30 computers available to patrons needing access to the Internet.

Furthermore, ten years ago, when you asked a reference librarian a question, chances are you took a walk together in the stacks to find your answer.  Now, it’s much more likely that the reference librarian will access powerful databases and/or Internet resources as a starting point for the search.  With more and more information available, it is more crucial than ever to have expert help in accessing and assessing it.

In another ten years, changes in Internet and database structures will allow audio and video to come through computers from the Internet in real-time.  This will offer a whole new set of information resources of which to take advantage!

In fact, we can’t begin to predict all the changes information storage and access will undergo.  But libraries will continue to be at the forefront of that movement, and the responsibility for providing free access to information for all people will remain our primary mission.

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