From fostering a love of reading in young people, to helping adults master basic computer skills and protecting our historical record, libraries bring literacy to multitudes of people efficiently and effectively.
The Northwest community knows all of this. Nearly 800,000 visitors in the first six months of this fiscal year used the Wheeler Taft Abbett Sr. and Oro Valley libraries, checking out more than a million materials.
This is why I have grave concerns about House Bill 2379, which is rapidly progressing through the current legislative session.
It has the potential not only to decimate our current library system, but will hamstring the system from expanding as the need arises.
Consider Oro Valley, for example. Since coming into the larger regional system, the library has increased its hours of operation by nine hours a week. More than $250,000 in new books, DVDs, CDs and magazines have been added to the collection. The computers available for public use have all been replaced. Improvements have been made to network cabling and equipment.
None of that could have happened under the proposed bill, which would essentially prevent investment in existing libraries and halt construction of any new ones for at least another decade.
This bill may seem relatively harmless, limiting the tax levy to the level established in fiscal year 2013/14 and allowing growth at only an inflationary rate.
Unfortunately, this change would have a devastating effect, forcing many small, satellite libraries to close. In the Northwest region, Dewhirst-Catalina likely would be affected, as would Geasa-Marana, which together serve about 150,000 visitors annually.
Here’s why: The tax levy to operate the Pima County Public Library system has been kept artificially low in an effort to support taxpayers when the economy was particularly soft. It costs $35 million annually to run the system. The tax levy produces about $28.4 million. That gap has been filled by spending down an existing fund balance, created through frugal management in previous years.
The uncommitted fund balance after this year will essentially be depleted.
If House Bill 2379 were to go into effect, the library system would be forced to reduce its budget by $5.4 million next year. That is a staggering chunk out of a $35 million budget.
In addition to the closures, our larger branches will not be immune, with reductions in hours and the widespread elimination of computer classes and homework help.
It’s small comfort that we aren’t alone. Maricopa County similarly used a fund balance to reduce the levy and is looking at a possible $14.5 million deficit.
Unfortunately, this bill is seeking a solution to a problem that does not exist. An evaluation of property taxes for the typical homeowner over the past five years demonstrates that in fact, property taxes for library services represent just 2.7 percent of the property tax obligation.
If you have thoughts you would like to share with your state legislator, I would encourage you to contact the District 11 lawmakers who serve the Northwest area. Their contact information and information about the bill may be found at www.azleg.gov.
(Editor’s Note: Chuck Huckelberry is the Pima County Administrator.)