Fort Smith Public Library director advocates for millage increase

story by Ryan Saylor

A decision has not yet been made on if or when voters may decide on whether to approve a millage increase for the Fort Smith Public Library, but it is not keeping supporters of the library from drumming up support for their cause.

At a noon meeting of the Fort Smith chapter of the League of Women Voters on Monday (June 9), Library Director Jennifer Goodson made her pitch, explaining what the money would be used for should voters approve taking the millage from one mil to three mils.

Goodson said the library would focus on offering more of "nearly everything" offered by the library, including an expanded selection of traditional books, audiobooks and DVDs, in addition to a larger selection of eBooks, online magazine, Spanish language and large print books. The increased millage would also provide the library with faster Internet speeds, as well as more WiFi and on-site computers for library patrons.

"For one thing, traditional library services are still very well utilized in our libraries," she said, pointing to statistics that show nearly 434,000 visits to Fort Smith Public Library branches last year, as well as nearly half a million checkouts of books, videos, audiobooks, music CDs and magazines.

She said on average, 414 library cards are issued to Fort Smith residents each month, with 4,973 issued during all of 2013, including 635 issued to non-residents at a cost of $35 per year.

But according to Goodson, while traditional use of the library is still being utilized, patrons of the library are in need of new offerings available in other libraries around the country. Some of these could be available at Fort Smith's library in coming years with the approval of the millage increase, she said.

Among the items included in the library's vision presented Monday are offering live online tutoring for students resume and job hunting assistance, as well as online video software tutorial videos and offering new online video streaming to library members, similar to a Netflix-type service.

"There are a couple of products out there for libraries," she said. "So how about we buy Hoopla (a streaming video provider for libraries) and/or Freegal movies … let's say we buy Hoopla and we buy Freegal movies and you just get your streaming video for free through your library card? How's that sound? That sounds like a pretty good idea. Well, that's part of the plan, too. Those are all digital services offered 24/7 that we're not currently offering and in some cases we're actually referring to other libraries because we don't have them."

The increased property tax revenue would also go toward digitizing microfilm offerings, as well as creating Redbox-style kiosks for books and DVDs all over Fort Smith. Another idea is creating a "maker space" that would offer all sorts of resources to residents, including 3D printing, video filming and editing, and media conversion services.

No building projects have yet been proposed as part of the millage increase discussed by Goodson and other library supporters. All the monies would go to expand services.

The budget for the library sits at $2.7 million, Goodson said, $1.4 million of which comes from one mil of property taxes passed in 1957. By increasing the millage rate by two mils, the library would increase the operating budget to $5.5 million assuming collection of an additional $2.8 million in property taxes to support the library.

What it means for the typical Fort Smith resident is an increase of property taxes on a $100,000 home of about $40 per year, brining total taxes paid per home to the library to about $60.

In the most recent home sales report for Sebastian County, the average home sale price was $129,284, meaning the average person just moving to Fort Smith or purchasing a new home in the city could expect paying an average of $78 in property taxes to the library.

Additional funding for the library includes 6% of the city's share of the county sales tax, which amounts to nearly $900,000; about $200,000 in state funding; grants; and about $100,000 in fines and fees, including non-resident fees, which Goodson conceded could triple should the millage pass, bringing the non-resident fee in line with what residents of the city would pay in property taxes. The library now uses about $100,000 from its capital reserves to fund operations, Goodson added.

Library board member Ben Shipley said residents who constantly compare Fort Smith to the more prosperous Northwest Arkansas should consider the value libraries add to communities, as well as the economic impact libraries make on communities as explained in a Gates Foundation study commissioned in 2007.

"This is a wonderful opportunity to become state of the art in terms of library services that are offered to folks," he said.

The Fort Smith Board of Directors will hold a special meeting Tuesday (June 10) to determine whether to hold an election for the millage increase. If approved, the city Board will also determine the date of the election. If the election is held August 12 as the library board has requested, Goodson said it would front the $30,000 cost of the election.