Speak up for funding well-used public libraries

At a time when more people than ever are using their community libraries, the funding gradually is being reduced.

A good library is essential in a community now more than ever, when people cannot afford to buy books and more people are using its computers, downloading e-books and checking out audio materials.

At this time, advocates of local libraries need to protest some of these reductions during a time when they are most needed.

Counties are responsible for providing a library system. Libraries get some revenue from the state, while most of it comes from taxpayers in each county through special and general property tax levies.

The counties’ revenues are suffering because tax capacity is going down due to all the foreclosures and shrinking commercial tax base. State legislators have cut local government aid and are requiring counties to do more with less and mandating more expenses with no extra money.

County commissioners, mostly sympathetic to library needs, are reducing revenues to libraries. To their credit, county library directors have been able to minimize reductions through more efficiencies and reorganizing library service.

One silent cutback, however, is reduction in books and materials. For example, in St. Paul, money to build up the collection has dropped from $1.3 million in 2003 to $850,000 this year.

In Hennepin County, where neither hours nor staff has been reduced, a reduction of $2.5 million cut into the collection budget.

Metro Library Service Agency (MELSA), which buys books and materials in large quantities, enables the metro counties to buy items at a lower cost.

Over the past several years, community and regional libraries have been cutting hours and staff. In Washington County, due to Lake Elmo’s decision to start its own library and withdrawing $260,000 from tax revenues that are no longer going to the county system, libraries are open five days instead of seven days a week.

Minnesota’s state auditor reports that cities and counties in the state have cut public library operating budgets and capital outlay by 42 percent between 2005 and 2009.

Meanwhile, more people than ever are using libraries. More students are going to the library because school districts are short-changing their media centers, once called libraries. Home-schooled children are using the libraries more. Senior citizens are attending computer classes so they can use the library’s computers.

One study shows that use of the library in Minnesota has gone up from 49 to 59 million users from 2003 to 2010.

Reductions in funding from the six counties in the Great River Regional Library system, based in St. Cloud, have resulted in fewer service hours based on circulation figures and in loss of seven staff members. Where Great River had received 6 to 8 percent increases in revenues before 2008, it now doesn’t receive an increase at all. The Elk River Library is part of the Great River Regional Library system.

Of course, the economy and particularly reductions in local government aid from the state to the counties partly are to blame for the underfunding and reduction in services.

Advocates of community libraries need to speak up particularly to legislators about this slow erosion of library hours and services. Unless policy makers hear protests from users, funding for libraries will continue to be reduced. — Don Heinzman. Elk River