April 23, 2014 - Add the Oxford Public Library to the growing list of local government entities that are asking voters to approve tax increases during this year's election season.
Last week, the library's Board of Trustees voted 5-0 to place a request for a 10-year, 0.4518-mill property tax increase on the Aug. 5 ballot.
"At the end of the day, it is very difficult to be able to provide the type of technology, the type of educational programs, the type of services that our community really does need and expects from this library based on the revenue that we have," said Library Director Bryan Cloutier.
"As difficult as it is to ask anyone to reach into their pocket and give more money, it's something we have to do in order to be able to sustain the type and the level of service that we provide today."
If approved, levy of the millage increase would begin with the December 2014 tax collection and end with the December 2023 bill. In its first year of levy, the proposed millage is expected to generate approximately $311,000.
Library officials say the increase is needed to help offset losses in tax revenue and continue offering existing services.
"This tax does not replace all of the lost revenue, but (it) will keep the library from making drastic cuts in programs and services," according to a millage information sheet the library will be distributing to residents.
The library's request will appear on the Aug. 5 ballot along with the North Oakland Transportation Authority's request for a five-year, 0.25-mill tax and the Oxford Twp. Parks and Rec. Dept. requests for a $20 million bond proposal to build a community center and a five-year, 0.05-mill tax to help operate it.
Cloutier said he's not concerned about these other ballot proposals potentially hurting the library millage's chances for success.
"We don't look at these other millage requests as competitors. Some people might look at it that way, but we don't," he said. "We're all providing a very unique service. We all complement each other in various ways . . . I think we all complement each other very well. It really is not a concern to me."
Currently, the library is supported by two operating millages, a 0.6764-mill levy and a 0.7218-mill levy, for a total of 1.3982 mills. Both were previously approved in perpetuity.
If voters choose to approve the 0.4518-mill increase, the total levy would rise to 1.85 mills, which is equal to a combination of the 1-mill rate voters approved in August 1984 and the 0.85-mill tax they authorized in November 1995.
Over the years, the state's Headlee Amendment rolled back the two millages to their current rates.
The proposed 0.4518-mill increase seeks to override those reductions and restore the millages to their initial rates.
In August 2012, the library requested a 0.4518-mill tax increase and voters rejected it 1,521 to 1,351.
However, back then, the request was for the proposed millage to be levied in perpetuity. This time, the proposed millage would be levied for 10 years, then it would be up to the voters to either let it expire or renew it.
This change was made in response to a concern expressed by residents.
"One of the things that we did hear that was predominant among most people we talked to was that they didn't necessarily have a problem funding the library . . . but the biggest concern was they didn't feel comfortable supporting (it) at that (tax) rate indefinitely," Cloutier said. "(They felt) the voters need to and deserve to have an opportunity to, in the future, make a decision whether or not they're going to continue to fund the library at that level. Maybe something changes economically that doesn't allow for that. Certainly, we understood that and that was something we took very seriously and took to heart."
Cloutier explained it was decided to seek a 10-year millage, as opposed to a five-year one, in order "to provide a more stable foundation for the library moving forward."
The library's millage information sheet states that if the millage fails Sunday hours would be eliminated and "a reduction in hours would also equate to another round of staff reductions."
Cloutier said the cuts would "most likely" come in the form of reduced hours of operation as opposed to actually eliminating staff from the payroll.
"We've reduced the staff all that we can in that respect," he explained. "Quite frankly, I cannot operate this building with less people. I can't. I have to have a certain number of people in this building at all times when it's open to the public for safety and security (reasons), and to just be able to meet the demand (to serve the public)."
That being said, Cloutier couldn't completely rule it out.
"Ultimately, it could result in layoffs," he said. "We don't know at this point to what extent that would be. From the administrative perspective, I can tell you that it would be extremely difficult, nearly impossible, for me to operate this building with less people . . . I have to have a certain amount of staff in the building if we're going to open to the public – it's just the nature of the beast."
Subscriptions to popular databases such as Ancestry Library Edition and Reference USA "would be discontinued" if the millage fails, according to the information sheet.
However, if the millage is approved "library hours will remain unchanged" and "operations can be stabilized at current levels." The information sheet also states the library will place a "high priority" on improving the budget for both print and electronic material "as well as restore the programming budgets back to 2007 figures."
Since 2007, the library has lost nearly $400,000 in tax revenue due to the decline in property values.
"Obviously, there has been a drastic change in the taxable value for this community over the last several years," Cloutier said. "As a result of that, tax revenue, which . . . makes up the bulk of the revenue that the library operates on in this community, has been affected by that significantly."
Coupled with this revenue loss is the fact that the cost of living continues to increase for supplies, natural gas, electricity, etc.
"Everything that it takes to operate the Oxford Public Library on a day-to-day basis has gone up significantly over that time," Cloutier said. "During the winter months, our natural gas bills are anywhere between $3,000 and $4,000 a month. Likewise, our electricity bills average about $3,000 a month."
The library has made budget cuts in many areas to deal with its shrinking revenue and rising costs.
Since 2007, staffing levels have been reduced by 12 people. Retirement compensation packages were reduced by 50 percent, saving the library more than $30,000 annually.
Salaries have been frozen unilaterally over the past seven years, which has saved the library nearly $104,000 annually. Healthcare costs were reduced by $12,200 annually while energy consumption was reduced by $8,000 annually. The materials/books budget was reduced by $46,599 annually.
"We've done very well at scaling back our entire operation without it really having a direct impact on the public," Cloutier said.
At the same time, the library's also been "very successful" at adding new forms of technology along with new programs and services.
"As a result of that, I don't think the public really does realize, behind the scenes, how difficult it is to continue doing what we're doing without an increase in funding," Cloutier said. "We're sort of a victim of our own success."
CJ Carnacchio is editor for The Oxford Leader. He lives in the Village of Oxford with his wife Connie and daughter Larissa. When he's not busy working on the newspaper, he enjoys cigars/pipes, Martinis/Scotch, hunting and fishing.