Task force not leaning toward tax for libraries right now

Citizen survey shows support for libraries, possible tax or fee

by Frank DeLoache

A special tax to support the library is probably not the best solution for its funding problems, given the continuing economic problems the state and local governments face, according to a committee of the task force studying the county library system.

But Dr. Jim Woodward, chairman of the task force, said Tuesday he hopes the group can show county commissioners that they need to spare the library system any more budget cuts, or the library leaders will have no choice but to close library branches.

Woodward, a former chancellor at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, said he hopes research collected by the task force will convince commissioners at least to maintain the library’s current budget until the economy recovers.

The task force got some ammunition from two sources Tuesday: the Urban Institute at UNC Charlotte and a recent poll of Mecklenburg residents measuring their support for the library system.

At the request of the task force, Urban Institute researchers gathered information on cuts that 13 other comparable library systems around the country have taken since the recession hit in 2008.  The researchers reported the Charlotte-Mecklenburg library system already has absorbed possibly the most drastic budget cuts among those library systems, including some in North Carolina. They found:

• The Charlotte-Mecklenburg library’s share of general fund dollars dropped the most – 44 percent – of any of the 14 systems between 2007-08 and the current year of 2010-11. The Dallas, Texas, library system saw the next largest change – a 39 percent drop in its “share of general fund” dollars.

The average change among those 14 library systems was a 13 percent loss.

• Charlotte-Mecklenburg saw the second larger change in its revenue – a cut of 36 percent. Only the Dallas library saw a largest cut – 39 percent. The average cut for all 14 systems was 14 percent.

At the same time, a survey of Mecklenburg residents shows that 87 percent of those surveyed feel the library is either “extremely important” or “very important” to the community. Of those surveyed, 90 percent said funding for the library system should be increased or kept “at the same level it is now.”

Only 6 percent of respondents favored more cuts for the library, and 4 percent said they didn’t know.

Nancy Burnap, of Marketwise Inc., conducted the telephone survey, which is scientifically valid, and delivered the results at the task force’s Tuesday meeting. The residents polled said they have noticed cuts to the libraries.

When asked to rate the library system before cutbacks began, 80 percent of respondents rated the system “extremely good” or “good.” But judging the library since it cut staff and operating hours and closed three branches, only 31 percent of respondents rated the system “extremely good” or “good.”

Though task force members don’t appear to favor calling for a dedicated library tax now, 59 percent of the residents surveyed said they are “strongly” or “somewhat” in favor of a dedicated library tax or fee. But Burnap cautioned that only 22 percent “strongly” favored the tax or fee, and said that in surveys, respondents generally “overstate” their support for such initiatives.

Armed with that type of information, Woodward told task force members he hopes to give commissioners a reasonable target for maintaining library funding. As an example, the task force might recommend that commissioners at least match the per capita funding for library systems serving a comparable population.

The task force already has seen statistics showing Charlotte-Mecklenburg libraries’ per capita funding was $41.98, compared to the median per capita funding of $42.94 for other library systems serving a population of 500,000 to 1 million. But those figures don’t reflect the past year of cuts to all those systems – and the most serious cut to the Charlotte-Mecklenburg system, which lost a third of its budget.

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