Nate Coulter, the executive director of Central Arkansas’s library system, in an interview on Friday, described the library’s referendum to increase the millage increase on November 9 in Little Rock as an attempt to resolve a budget constraint and prevent cuts in library services .
“Don’t we have lessons?” asked Coulter. “Don’t we have that many people helping out with the after-school programs? Do we need to cut down on some of the Rock It! Lab programs or the tutoring programs?”
Officials want to avoid making these and other decisions, he said.
The library special election was added to the calendar of the upcoming tax election after the Little Rock board of directors approved an ordinance on Tuesday calling the referendum at the request of the library system.
The library system is asking Little Rock voters to increase the city’s current operations and maintenance rate by 0.5 million. The increase would raise the rate from 3.3 to 3.8 million.
A millage rate represents the tax payable on every $ 1,000 of the taxable value of a property. Millages are often used as a local income generating device to support public institutions such as libraries and school districts.
In the interview at the main library with the system’s finance director, Jo Spencer, Coulter said officials estimate that increasing the millage will generate an additional $ 2.3 million to $ 2.4 million in revenue annually.
He has postulated that the increase will result in a $ 14 increase in property taxes for the average Little Rock home.
A budget constraint dating back several years has resulted in the library system requiring residents of Little Rock to pay more property taxes.
A graph provided by Coulter shows that the library system’s combined expenditure, adjusted for inflation, increased steadily from 2008 until it eventually exceeded tax revenue between 2012 and 2013.
Tax revenue fell shortly thereafter, before recovering slightly around 2019, outpacing spending.
Nevertheless, the trends had reversed in the last year and expenditure once again exceeded tax receipts.
Coulter said the library was trying to temporarily resolve the problem associated with the system’s budget by using loan proceeds – or borrowed money – to supplement the operating budget for materials.
Last year was the first year in recent times that the proceeds from the capital increase bonds were not used to supplement the budget for material acquisitions because the borrowed money was depleted and because of an unexpected surge in revenue.
Coulter said the problem needed a long-term solution.
The last increase in operating income in Little Rock was due to a Millage election in 2007. But since then, the system has added new offices and facilities, Coulter said.
The departments were asked to make cuts. And since Coulter was appointed Executive Director in 2016, the number of employees has decreased from around 306 to 280 today, he said.
Despite his best efforts, he said that “we still have this structural problem”.
Regarding the recent evolution of the lines representing tax collection and spending, “If you look at it, it’s going in the wrong direction … they’re splitting up. You can’t sustain that,” said Coulter.
The proliferation of digital media such as audiobooks and e-books has also weighed on the library’s materials budget by around $ 2 million. According to Coulter, the agreement that the library pays for digital media is more expensive than borrowing a physical copy of a book until the copy crumbles.
The Millage Increase will allow the system to avoid âsome of the things that we believe are valued by the community and that we believe are important to continue to be deployed and developed when we can – when we can generate additional income, âhe said.
Coulter said he was especially proud of the efforts made by the library system staff to serve customers during the Covid-19 pandemic, including the library’s contactless curb service.
Although the library closed at the start of the pandemic in March 2020, the system’s doors were essentially open again through September 2020, although personal activities were suspended for security reasons, Coulter said. The physical circulation was over 1 million last year, he said.
Coulter said that “our point to the community was, ‘We’re still here, even in this crisis, and they’re counting on us.'”
Many other libraries remained closed for extended periods of time during the pandemic and only reopened sometime after the vaccine became available, he said.
When asked about the decision to increase Little Rock’s 3.3 million rate compared to an increase in any of the library system’s other jurisdictions, Coulter said that most of the library’s assets are in Little Rock, and most of the population in the system’s coverage area live in the city.
In addition, he suggested that the property tax base in other jurisdictions is not large enough to generate high revenues.
Coulter said that “it seems fairer in a way because the assets are here.”
He said that a campaign committee that has existed over the years, called the Neighborhood Libraries Coalition, is expected to raise funds, use lobbying contributions, and report expenses.
A larger group of people made up of friends of the library is also expected to alert voters to the November 9 election and encourage them to support the system, he said.
Coulter said that “unlike a lot of candidate campaigns, there won’t be a lot of fundraising and there won’t be television and all that kind of stuff.”
Little Rock voters will vote on September 14, ahead of the Millage library system election, to vote for one of Mayor Frank Scott Jr.
Likewise, the Little Rock School District is considering a possible November 2nd election whether the 12.4 million debt service levy should be extended by 19 years instead of ending the levy in 2033.
When asked about the risk of tax fatigue with the library’s referendum after one or maybe two separate tax elections, Coulter said the library wanted the election last November during the general election.
He is optimistic, although the timing is “not ideal”.
Coulter said officials will be tough if library staff don’t vote âyesâ to increasing millage at work, though he said they could explain the fact-based elements of the choice to customers.