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Library system millage 2nd-highest in state

Levy comparisons within, outside Arkansas apples vs. oranges in some cases by Tess Vrbin | November 7, 2021 at 4:05 a.m.
The main branch of the Central Arkansas Library System in Little Rock is shown in this April 30, 2020, file photo. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Thomas Metthe)

Whether Little Rock voters approve a property tax increase Tuesday to support the Central Arkansas Library System or not, the system will have the second-highest millage rate among Arkansas' largest public libraries, according to an Arkansas Democrat-Gazette review.

Little Rock's property taxes support the regional system with 3.3 mills, and voters will decide on a 0.5-mill increase Tuesday. One mill represents the dollar amount paid on every $1,000 of the tax-assessed value of a piece of property.

Among Arkansas' largest public libraries, the only system with a higher millage rate is the Pine Bluff Jefferson County Library System, with 4.6 mills -- 3.0 for capital improvements, and 1.6 for operations and maintenance -- and a projected 2022 budget of $1.5 million.

The Central Arkansas Library System's 2021 budget is $19.7 million, an increase from $19.4 million in 2020 and $18.9 million in 2019, system director Nate Coulter said in an email.

The Fayetteville Public Library is supported by a 2.5-mill property tax and operates on a budget of roughly $8 million -- the second-largest budget behind Central Arkansas.

However, drawing comparisons between the tax equations that support different libraries is difficult because funding sources vary as do the sizes of populations served.

Property tax millage is the primary funding source for the 58 public library systems statewide, though the number of mills and the revenue they generate vary by location, in some cases even across city and county lines within systems.

Some Arkansas libraries, such as the ones in Bentonville and Bella Vista, are not supported by property taxes at all, depending instead on city budgets, donations or sales tax revenue. The Bentonville Public Library, for example, is a city department.

Additionally, most systems raise supplemental revenue via nonprofits or "friends of the library" organizations. Mmany also collect money from grants, as well as state support.

[Playable podcast not showing up above? Click here to listen » arkansasonline.com/1031coulter/]

Comparisons among public libraries in other states' metropolitan areas of similar sizes to Little Rock are also difficult, and they, too, receive a wide range property tax support.

On one hand, the library system in Baton Rouge is funded primarily through a 10.52-mill property tax, according to the East Baton Rouge Parish assessor's office. Meanwhile, the Lexington Public Library in Kentucky is funded with a 0.5-mill property tax, according to the library's website.

LIBRARY FINANCES

The Central Arkansas Library System election comes as libraries across the state and nation are searching for ways to generate revenue and balance budgets.

The overall financial health of public libraries in Arkansas "could really use a boost," state librarian Jennifer Chilcoat said.

"There are some that have been fortunate to go out and secure funding for projects that are needed to serve their communities, but they are having to work extra hard for that money. And some of the smaller libraries, in particular, don't have the capacity to make things happen," she said.

If Little Rock voters approve the millage increase Tuesday, the projected $2.3 million-2.4 million in new annual revenue would make up for what Coulter has called a long-term budgetary squeeze.

The money would cover the rising cost of e-books and other digital materials, necessary wage increases for staffers, technology upgrades and deferred maintenance at aging buildings, Coulter wrote in a report for the library system's September monthly meeting.

The system has also added more facilities and branches since the latest operational millage increase was approved in 2007, Coulter told the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

[COULTER INTERVIEW: Read a transcript of Nate Coulter's talk with Rex Nelson » arkansasonline.com/1031sfpodcast/]

Although the regional library system serves areas beyond the boundaries of Little Rock -- it has branches in Wrightsville, Jacksonville, Sherwood, Maumelle and Perryville -- only Little Rock voters will be asked to approve the millage increase Tuesday.

Coulter suggested in August that the decision to pursue the millage increase in Little Rock was because of the size of the city's property-tax base and the fact that most of the system's patrons live in the city.

In addition to the Little Rock millage, the library system is supported by 2.1 mills in Maumelle and 1.6 mills in the rest of Pulaski and Perry counties.

With Little Rock being Arkansas' capital and largest city, the library provides a range of unique services, including the Encyclopedia of Arkansas, which has more than 6,000 entries and more than 4,000 daily users, Coulter said. Most statewide encyclopedias are run by universities or state governments instead of public libraries, he said.

The Central Arkansas Library System also has an on-site social worker.

"If there's something that's troubling about a patron's request or situations, they could come to a professional on staff and help sort it out," Coulter said.

Additionally, the library's Rock It! Lab "is a learning and start-up hub designed to promote entrepreneurship, particularly in under-resourced communities," according to the system website.

DIFFERENT APPROACHES

Not all library systems can depend on millage increases to aid their budgets, said John McGraw, the director of the Faulkner-Van Buren Regional Library System, headquartered in Conway.

"It's impossible in Faulkner County to get a tax increase even before the voters," he said. "The quorum court's not going to approve anything that smells like a tax increase. I've got to make do with what I have, but I'm doing pretty good with what I have."

Some library systems that serve more populous areas can request help from a local governing body if they are dealing with a budget shortfall.

For six months in 2015, the state reduced its financial aid for libraries, which put a strain on the Washington County Library System, director Glenda Audrain said. She asked the quorum court for some reserve funds, which she said were helpful.

[VOTING LOCATIONS: List of election sites not showing up above? Click here » arkansasonline.com/117calsvoting/]

Separate from the Fayetteville library, the system has branches in eight Washington County municipalities, and a 1-mill property tax supports those libraries.

The Washington County system's projected 2022 budget is roughly $3 million, Audrain said.

During the brief period of decreased funding, she said the library system's budget for materials, such as books and DVDs, was reduced.

The Fayetteville Library dealt with a shortfall in 2013, and one adjustment was to leave vacant jobs empty, director David Johnson said.

"You don't want to balance the budget on the backs of your employees," he said. "You certainly don't want to reduce staff, but you can slow down how quickly you replace staff who move on or retire."

The system also reduced some programming and landscaping costs, while the book budget did not change, Johnson said.

Some libraries cut their digital database subscriptions to save money, Fort Smith library system director Jennifer Goodson said. That system is supported by a 1-mill property tax in addition to a share of Fort Smith's Sebastian County sales tax and state aid.

A millage is the most stable form of funding because it can be changed only by voters, Goodson said.

"Sometimes the economy is not as strong as others, so the sales tax does not meet expectations as it comes in," she said. "People are not [always] spending money as we thought they might."

Misty Hawkins, director of the Arkansas River Valley Regional Library System, also said that digital subscriptions can be a place to cut costs.

The Arkansas River Valley system includes Franklin, Logan, Johnson and Yell counties, and receives 2 mills from each county. Hawkins said the system's budget is often larger than its expenditures, and the leftover money goes toward building maintenance and upkeep at its seven branches.

"We don't want to depend on the taxpayers' money [in case] someone doesn't pay and we're depending on that amount, so we try to be conservative in our estimations," Hawkins said.

Other counties, particularly in rural areas, can't afford cuts.

The Dallas County libraries in Fordyce and Sparkman have a budget of roughly $52,000, the smallest in the Mid-Arkansas Regional Library System, regional director Clare Graham said.

Graham said cuts there would cause citizens to lose public access to computers and wireless internet.

"People wouldn't have access to virtual school, health care and all things that are required nowadays," she said.

Goodson, the library director in Fort Smith, said the state's public libraries are doing their best to serve their communities.

"I know public libraries are very mindful of their responsibility to be good stewards of their public money, and every library I've ever had contact with is very experienced with stretching a dime into a dollar, maximizing the impact of the money that we have," Goodson said.

Print Headline: Library system millage 2nd-highest in state

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