NEWS

It's every library for itself

Morgan Wesson

Trustees of the Bloomfield Public Library have a decision to make: stay a town-sponsored library or break away and set up a library taxing district.

Other libraries have become independent because donations from governments and the public were not enough to pay the bills. Local governments are reluctant to raise library contributions beyond the rate of inflation to avoid town tax increases or at least keep tax in-creases to a minimum.

At the same time, libraries say they are serving more people and those people want pricey services like high-speed Internet.

This month, the Bloomfield library announced plans to consider district status, perhaps by 2009.

“We’re in a study mode,” said Tim Murphy, library board vice president of the taxing district.

Bloomfield is one of the last municipal libraries in Ontario County thanks to East Bloomfield taxpayers, who will pitch in $90,000 for 2008. Of the town’s tax rate of $1.69 per $1,000, 44 cents goes the library. West Bloomfield contributes about $11,300.

After East Bloomfield held its contribution flat at $88,988 in 2006 and 2007, the Bloomfield library asked the town for a 17 percent budget increase. The town instead proposed a decrease, to $84,000.

“We didn’t want to lose $5,000,” said Laurie Newell, the library manager, so a library delegation objected at a hearing. In the end, the Town Board approved $90,000, a 1.8 percent increase for 2008. The library and town are also in dispute over reserve funds, with talks set to resume in January.

If Bloomfield were to set up a library district, property owners would see a separate line item on their tax bills, said Jennifer Morris, executive director of the Pioneer Library System. Pioneer is an umbrella agency that coordinates cooperative efforts among 42 libraries in Ontario, Wayne, Wyoming and Livingston counties. For example, it runs the owwl.org online library catalog that lets people search all 42 libraries from a home computer.

Morris said a library tax will spread costs more equitably and give libraries full control over their finances and direction. But forming a library district comes with problems, too. In the hunt for tax dollars, libraries are redrawing service areas around modern school district boundaries, legally poaching on the older charters of neighboring libraries.

The Naples Library switched to a school district library after a public vote in June. But in following the school district’s boundary, it scooped up areas that the Bristol Library considered its own service area.

“They blindsided us,” said Karen Dadali, chairwoman of the Bristol Library, which has a $60,000 annual budget. “The town of South Bristol used to give us $2,000. This year, they cut that to around $1,000. Naples Library now has South Bristol and 150 families in Bristol. The South Bristol people are paying the most for the Naples Library. South Bristol was an unchartered area. We also served people from there.”

“When push came to shove, we had to do it financially,” said Naples Library manager Blanche Warner. For years, Naples had relied on generous bequests to pay expenses. With that money running low, it would have had to sharply curtail services. The tax, about 25 cents per $1,000, raises the $140,000 the library needs to maintain services.

“It was well-publicized. Everybody in the school district got a mailing,” she said. Still, Warner understands Dadali’s position. “I can see their point of view,” she added.

Geneva, Geneseo, Naples and Newark have all become district libraries in recent years and reaped independence and benefits, sometimes by roping in taxpayers that were traditionally part of a neighboring library’s service area or an area never chartered in the first place.

A move by Bloomfield on the Bristol tax base would whittle the fortunes of Bristol’s library further. And because Bristol gets support from the Bloomfield school district, it could lose again on any new library tax district that doesn’t include Bristol’s library.

Morris understands the frustration.

“Can’t we figure out a more equitable process to do this?” she asked. Legislation is crawling through the Assembly to allow New York’s 754 libraries to redistrict without cannibalizing neighboring library charters. At stake is a resource unique to New York state. “Nobody else has that many libraries, not even close,” Morris added.

As libraries seek a stable source of income, they also come up against an increasing notion that the library itself — not just the funding mechanism — is outdated.

During budget deliberations, East Bloomfield Town Councilman Phil White wondered aloud, “Do we really need these (libraries) now that we have the Internet?”

“I can’t tell you how many times I have heard that,” said Morris. “If you want reliable, authoritative information, I hope you’re not just using the Internet. Libraries are free, as in freedom, but they cost money. It gets down to the essentials of democracy. You want a well-informed citizenry who all have access to the same thing.”

Contact Morgan Wesson at (585) 394-0770, Ext. 256, or at messenger@mpnewspapers.com.