As City Hall contemplates a new fee for sidewalk maintenance and higher fees for parks and recreation services and downtown parking, here’s a new one to consider: A public library user fee.
City Manager David Corliss is suggesting that the city’s library board study the idea of a “modest membership fee” to reduce the library’s reliance on city property taxes, which have become a less stable funding source as the real estate market has suffered.
Thus far, the idea is being greeted a lot like a Dan Brown reading at a Shakespeare conference.
“I haven’t had time to really examine it, but at first glance, it seems like a very bad idea,” said City Commissioner Aron Cromwell.
Library board members said the library is serving larger numbers of low-income or unemployed people who likely would be hard-pressed to pay a new fee.
“I think there would be quite a backlash if we started charging user fees,” said Michael Machell, vice-chair of the library board.
But Corliss said he would like library leaders to keep an open mind to the idea. He said the library board could create its own rules on who would be required to pay the fee.
“We clearly want any child, regardless of income, to be able to check out a book at the library,” Corliss said. “I clearly agree with that value. But maybe there are ways to create a system for those who can afford to pay a fee.”
Ultimately, it will be up to the library board, not the City Commission, to determine whether a fee is appropriate. Unlike other city boards, the Public Library Board is not an advisory board. Its members — who are appointed by the City Commission — are charged with making the final decisions on how the library operates.
It’s not clear how much a new fee could generate because no specific fee amount has been proposed. But the library loaned out about 1.2 million items in 2008, and averaged about 9,100 visitors per week. The library receives about $3 million per year in city property tax dollars, which accounts for about 90 percent of the library’s overall budget.
Library board members said they are appreciative of Corliss’ concerns about the future of property tax revenues for the library, especially in 2011 when home values are expected to fall even farther.
“But a user fee would be a huge shift in philosophy for us to consider,” said Deborah Thompson, a library board member. “I think we would look at all kinds of funding options before we would look at charging fees.”
Cromwell said he thinks as the economy improves in the next couple of years, the community at large will be ready to consider new funding sources for an improved library.
“I’m very optimistic that we’re going to have a proposal to improve the library and improve its funding in the next two years,” Cromwell said. “If there isn’t one by then, I’ll bring one forward.”