Athens County Public Libraries Seek A Levy For The First Time

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Although Athens County Public Libraries are seeking approval this November of their first-ever levy, the library system is not in a unique situation. Libraries statewide have been turning to local taxpayers in recent years to make up for major cuts in state funding.

Doug Evans, executive director of the Ohio Library Council, said that since 2009 there have been 100 new library levies enacted in Ohio, and nearly all of those were first-time levies for the library systems involved. The Athens County library system is one of 32 library systems with tax issues on the ballot in Ohio this fall, and eight of those are new taxes, according to information provided by Evans.

He said that in the past 10 years, state funding for libraries has decreased about $105 million.

“Currently, 176 libraries (70 percent) have passed levies that provide local property tax revenue to complement their state funding,” Evans said.

Athens County Public Libraries aren’t alone in asking taxpayers for help, but Libraries Director Lauren Miller said the decision to ask voters to approve a 1-mill, five-year levy wasn’t taken lightly.

Since 2008, Athens County Public Libraries have undergone about a 23 percent cut in state funding — going from $2.17 million in 2008 to just under $1.69 million in 2013.

Since the major cut that was implemented in 2009, the library’s board of trustees has “struggled” with whether to go to voters, Miller said.

In response to the 2009 funding cut, the board cut 11 jobs, reduced operating hours of the libraries, did away with the Bookmobile, stopped a program that took library materials to the homebound and reduced expenditures on library materials, Miller said.

Even so, the libraries have had to deal with cost increases from inflation.

“We can’t absorb the inflation rate anymore,” Miller said.

She also noted there is increased patron demand for e-materials, which are more costly.

For example, she said an e-book would cost an individual about $13, but due to copyright issues the library must license it at an average cost of about $80, she said.

“Non-print is expensive, however our patrons are demanding more access to more e-content,” she said.

In 2013, Athens County Public Libraries received just under $1.69 million in state money, plus operated on $107,775 in donations and $21,497 in grants.

The five-year levy, if approved, would generate about $903,000 annually. It would cost someone who owns a home with an assessed value of $100,000 about $35 a year, Miller said.

She said passage of the levy would restore and maintain the libraries’ purchasing power to buy print and non-print materials, maintain and update technology and equipment and pay for programming (and not just rely on donations and grants for programming).

“We would like to restore the outreach programs, slowly,” Miller said.

Also, she said operating hours would gradually be restored if the levy is approved.

“If it doesn’t pass, the board of trustees will have to make difficult decisions regarding funding of library materials, programming, equipment such as computers and operating hours,” Miller said. She said further staffing cuts are not on the table.

She cited figures that indicate how much the system’s seven libraries — located in Nelsonville, Athens, The Plains, Glouster, Coolville, Chauncey and Albany — are used. In 2013, there were 390,359 visits to the libraries, and 64,066 patron uses of the computers.

“We still have a digital divide in Athens County,” Miller said, due to some people not being able to afford the cost of computers and the Internet, and some areas still not having high-speed Internet. The libraries provide access to computers and the Internet.

She said the libraries also provide free meeting space, offer faxing and photocopying and are places where people can pick up tax and voter registration forms.

“In some of our villages, the public library is the only public building, perhaps, in the village,” she said. “We have purposely made our public libraries community centers. It might be the only thing in that village where children can hang out.”

This summer, free meals were served five days a week to children at four of the libraries.

“We feel the library levy is not a political issue,” Miller said. “It’s a quality of life issue.”