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Who is “they”?

August 6, 2012

Overheard: Why did they spend money remodeling the library instead of fixing the potholes?

Who is “they”?

The “they” that fixes potholes is different from the “they” that remodels the library. In town, the City of Salida looks after potholes.

The Salida Regional Library is actually the Southern Chaffee County Regional Library District. I think most library users would struggle to answer the question, “How is the library funded?”

There are several common slips of the tongue I’ve heard over the years, even from myself: library = post office = bank. It’s seems odd that anyone would say one when they mean the other, but it happens often, and it does make some sense.

The IRS even had a tax-form distribution program called BPOL: Banks, Post Offices, and Libraries.

All three are community institutions that most people include on their errands at some point. Often, the buildings have similarities. We’ve long expected them to be there.

The library is the only government agency, though. The post office must pay its own way but is regulated by Congress, perhaps over-regulated, which is part of its current difficulties. And banks are regulated by Congress, too, perhaps under-regulated, which is part of our current difficulties.

But a public library is typically “government” funded. So, who is “they”? They is us, whether we like it or not.

The Salida Regional Library is not funded by city, county, state, or federal government but rather directly by you through a property tax.

Library districts are similar to other districts, such as hospital or fire protection, but they are governed under a different law. “Title 32” districts have elected boards and a host of attendant statutes. Library districts have boards appointed by the county commissioners plus their own particular laws.

In a given year, property taxes make up 85-90% of our library’s operating budget. The fact that they are property taxes is helpful. We won’t see a flood tide of income during good times, such as sales tax might bring in, but neither are we likely to see a precipitous decline. Not that it can’t happen. There are districts that face drops in assessed valuation of 30% and more. This year, we saw our first decline: 6.5%.

But Colorado did a good thing for its libraries by permitting the formation of library districts. One can argue that the proliferation of service districts of all kinds has encouraged suburban sprawl, but for libraries, the district has also decoupled library funding from more volatile city and county funding.

Library funding is still connected to the overall economy; however, the experience is not of storm-tossed seas but of gentler, longer swells and troughs.

We may be in a longer trough now, and it will extend beyond any recovery that might happen, because of the way property values are determined and assessed, but maybe it will be a shallow one.

Don’t worry, though. The library remains in good shape for now. And in part because of public participation. We found a note neatly written on a paper towel in the ladies’ room that said:

“I’ve never been able to understand why someone keeps placing the soap bottle on the green counter where water from everyone’s hands always accumulates & is left in puddles to soak into the crack of the backsplash & breed who knows what when if the soap bottle were placed on the white sink none of this would happen …”

So, this person always cleans up the mess and puts the soap dispenser on the sink’s edge. Note signed with a smile and a heart.

Thank you. A public institution requires many kinds of attention.

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