Nate Coulter, executive director of the Central Arkansas Library System, in an interview Friday, described the November 9 referendum on increasing library mileage in Little Rock as an attempt to resolve a budget crisis and prevent cuts in library services.
“Don’t we have hours? Coulter asked. “Don’t we have so many staff helping out with after-school programs? Do we have to cut some “Rock It! Lab ”or tutoring programs? “
Officials want to avoid making these and other decisions, he said.
The special election for the library has joined the calendar for the upcoming fiscal elections after the Little Rock board of directors on Tuesday approved an ordinance calling for a referendum at the request of the library system.
The library system is asking voters in Little Rock to approve a 0.5 million increase in the city’s current operating and maintenance mileage rate, which is supported by property taxes. The increase would bring the rate from 3.3 to 3.8 thousandths.
A mileage rate represents the tax collected on every $ 1,000 of the assessed value of a property. Miles are often used as a local income generation device to support public entities such as libraries and school districts.
In the main library interview alongside the system’s finance director, Jo Spencer, Coulter said officials estimate that the mileage increase will generate an additional $ 2.3 million to $ 2.4 million in revenue per year.
He postulated that the increase will result in a $ 14 property tax hike on the average Little Rock home.
A budget squeeze going back several years has led the library system to ask residents of Little Rock to pay more property taxes.
A graph provided by Coulter showed that the combined inflation-adjusted expenditure of the library system increased steadily from 2008 until it finally exceeded tax revenue around 2012-13.
Tax revenues fell soon after, before rebounding slightly to exceed spending around 2019.
However, the trends reversed last year, with spending once again exceeding tax revenue.
Coulter said the library had attempted to temporarily resolve the problem associated with the system’s budget by using the proceeds of bonds – or borrowed money – to supplement the operational materials budget.
Last year was the first year in recent times that income from Capital Improvement Bonds has not been used to supplement the hardware acquisition budget because the borrowed money was depleted, he said. he stated, as well as due to an unexpected increase in income.
Coulter said the problem requires a long-term solution.
The last increase in operating income in Little Rock occurred due to a 2007 election thousand. But since then the system has added new branches and facilities, Coulter said.
Departments have been asked to make cuts. And since Coulter became executive director in 2016, the number of employees has grown from around 306 to 280 today, he said.
Despite their best efforts, he said “we still have this structural problem”.
Referring to the recent trajectory of the lines representing tax revenue and expenditure, “if you look at it, it’s going in the wrong direction… they’re going their separate ways. You can’t stand this,” Coulter said.
Circulation of digital items such as audiobooks and e-books also strained the library’s approximately $ 2 million hardware budget. According to Coulter, the arrangement for the library to pay for digital items is more expensive than lending a physical copy of a book until the copy falls apart.
The increased mileage will allow the system to avoid removing “some of the things that we think the community values and is important to continue to provide and develop, if we can – if we get that extra income. “, did he declare.
Coulter said he was especially proud of the efforts of library system staff to serve patrons during the covid-19 pandemic, including contactless curbside service at the library.
Although the library closed in March 2020 at the start of the pandemic, by September 2020 the doors to the system were open full-time again, although in-person activities remained suspended for safety reasons, Coulter said. Physical circulation was over a million last year, he said.
Coulter said that “our point to the community was, ‘We’re still here, even in this crisis, and you depend on us. “”
Many other libraries remained closed for an extended period during the pandemic and only reopened for some time after the vaccine became available, he said.
Asked about the decision to pursue a 3.3 million rate hike in Little Rock versus an increase in one of the library system’s other jurisdictions, Coulter said most of the library’s assets are in Little Rock and most of the population in the system service area resides in the city.
Additionally, he suggested that the property tax base was not large enough in other jurisdictions to generate much revenue.
Coulter said that “it seems fairer in a way because the assets are here.”
He said a campaign committee that has existed on and off over the years, called the Coalition for Neighborhood Libraries, should raise funds, dedicate contributions to advocacy work and report expenses.
A larger group of people made up of friends of the library should also inform voters about the November 9 election and encourage them to support the system, he said.
Coulter said that “unlike a lot of candidate campaigns, there won’t be a lot of fundraising and there won’t be TV and stuff like that.”
Little Rock voters are expected to go to the polls on September 14, ahead of the library system’s municipal election, to authorize a 1 percentage point sales tax increase championed by Mayor Frank Scott Jr.
Likewise, the Little Rock School District is considering a possible election on Nov. 2 on whether to extend the 12.4 vintage debt service levy for 19 years, instead of ending the levy in 2033.
Asked about the danger of tax fatigue with the library referendum coming just after one or perhaps two separate tax elections, Coulter said the library wanted to hold an election last November in the general election.
He said he was optimistic even though the timing was “not optimal”.
Coulter said officials will be strict about library workers not pushing for a “yes” vote for increased mileage at work, although he said they could explain the facts to customers. of the election.