Library needs money, but not a 200% increase

The City Wire editorial

The Fort Smith Public Library is deserving of a funding increase so it can better serve the community, but The City Wire does not endorse the proposal to increase millage for the library by 2 mils – from 1 mil to 3 mils.

Early voting began Aug. 5 and the special election day is Aug. 12.

Voters approved 1 mil for the library that in the first full year (1958) generated $36,000. By 1995 the amount generated from the millage totaled $627,000. In 1994, Sebastian County voters approved a 1-cent countywide sales tax of which a small portion was directed to the Fort Smith Public Library. In 1995 the library collected $596,000 from the tax, with the revenue rising to $921,000 in 2013.

In 1997, Fort Smith voters approved a more than $55 million sales tax increase to build the Fort Smith Convention Center, make improvements in and around Harry E. Kelley Park in downtown Fort Smith, and significantly expand the Fort Smith Public Library by building a new 60,000-square-foot main library and three branch libraries.

By 2013, the library system collected a total of $2.296 million from millage and the sales tax. The library system is now asking for a millage increase that would add another $2.8 million a year in revenue. Our concerns about this request and the process are threefold.

While we do not take issue with special elections, it is troubling that the polling sites are reduced from the more than 20 in a regular election to just four sites – with one of the sites being in a library branch – for this special election on Aug. 12. Limited ballot access is unfortunate and antithetical to a library seeking broader and deeper connections to city residents.

Jumping from 1 mil to 3 mils is the primary objection among those who oppose the increase. An overwhelming majority of those informally surveyed by The City Wire said they would have supported a 1 mil raise.

Indeed, a 200% funding increase is indicative of an effort to fix a long running and well-known funding crisis, or to support an extensive physical expansion. Neither of those are facts in this case. The library board, staff and supporters are to be commended for the impressive list of service upgrades and new services allowed under a millage increase. But the list does not, in our opinion, rise to a level requiring a 200% increase.

And while the list is impressive, it’s spending specificity does not match the bold call for a 200% increase. Library Executive Director Jennifer Goodson called the proposed budget "a flexible document, not a rulebook. We've got a good first year, but we need to see what we learn and what we experience between now and 2017."

In exchange for a 200% increase, we’d like something closer to a rulebook than a flexible document. We at the The City Wire have learned from the Ben Geren water park process that too few specifics on the front end results in controversy and diminished trust on the back end. The library is too valuable as a community asset to chance controversy or trust issues.

Past and present managers, staffers and supporters of the Fort Smith Public Library are to be praised for their efficient management and great service to the city and the region. They have accomplished wonders with the resources available to them. The City Wire also believes more funding for the library would allow the system to better serve all socio-economic demographics of not only the city, but the region. We are especially intrigued by the “maker spaces” concept, which is a place in a library that could be used by entrepreneurs to invent, create and produce new business services and/or products.

To that point, and if the millage question fails, we encourage library leadership to return with a request for a 1 mil increase and a more defined budget plan. It would be nice if the election could be held with a regularly scheduled cycle, but if it must be a special election, please consider more than just four polling sites.

Appropriate consideration of the library millage increase must be made in context with other near- and long-term issues facing the city and likely to increase costs for city residents and businesses. A short list of those include a potential rate increase for water and sewer customers, the ongoing Department of Justice order that may require more investment in the city’s wet-weather sanitation system, pending liabilities with the city’s fire and police pension fund, and likely millage increases for Fort Smith Public School improvements. School millage increases could be in the 6 to 10 millage range.

In addition to pending future costs, the Fort Smith regional economy is on a positive track but is still struggling to emerge from the recession of 2007-2008. As of July 2014, there were 14,229 fewer employed in the region since June 2007, down 10.7%. If assuming that each of those employed once earned $25,000 (a considerably low number), we’ve suffered an annual loss of $355.725 million in commercial activity in the Fort Smith region.

Asking for a 200% funding increase on businesses – who pay a bulk of the property tax collections – in this economic environment and with the other issues facing city residents is not something we are able to endorse.

Again, the Fort Smith Public Library is deserving of a funding increase so it can better serve the community, but The City Wire does not endorse increasing millage for the library by 2 mils.