With sleeves rolled up, the Vigo County Public Library swallowed hard, resisted complaining, and did what it had to …
More with less.
At a public hearing a year ago this month, Nancy Dowell — the VCPL executive director — explained to folks who count on the library’s smorgasbord of services that cutbacks were coming. Big cutbacks. Property tax caps, imposed by Gov. Mitch Daniels and the Indiana Legislature, would shave nearly a half-million dollars a year from the library’s budget.
So, with no good options, three of Vigo County’s four branch locations — each in place for decades — closed. Seventeen staffers got laid off. Health insurance benefits for the remaining employees were drastically reduced, Dowell said. The lone surviving satellite branch in West Terre Haute eliminated evening and weekend hours.
No big deal, right? After all, if the state was forcing such heavy cuts, the library must not be that popular or necessary, right?
Well, not exactly. Actually, one year after Dowell delivered that somber news at that hearing, the library’s main branch at Seventh and Poplar streets is busier than ever. In 2008, a total of 449,880 visitors entered the main branch.
Last year, that figure jumped by 20.3 percent to 541,319. The number of transactions rose nearly 31 percent to 767,341 in 2009 from 586,111 in 2008. The two computer labs bustle with jobseekers honing resumes, jobless people filing online for government services, and businessmen and businesswomen accessing the library’s free wi-fi with their laptops.
The parking lot had to be expanded to handle the increased crowds.
Many people who frequently visited the lost branches at Southland, The Meadows and Plaza North found ways to get to the downtown location. Some have not. With five branches operating in 2008, the Vigo County system handled 970,370 transactions.
The losses, clearly, were felt.
“Looking back, I think closing the branches was traumatic,” Dowell said, “both for our patrons and our staff.”
It’s been described as an “unintended consequence” of Indiana House Bill 1001. That law, passed in 2008, put a ceiling on property taxes of 1 percent for homeowners, 2 percent for owners of rental property, and 3 percent for businesses. This fall, Hoosiers will vote on a referendum to etch those caps into the Indiana Constitution. If so, those unintended consequences become permanent, too.
Not surprisingly, the Vigo County Public Library is ready for that prospect. “We have managed our money well,” Dowell said.
The library gives taxpayers a good return on the 11.53 cents per $100 of their property’s assessed value that it receives. A financial consulting firm, Umbaugh & Associates, recommended the library maintain a cash reserve of 16.67 percent annually to cover funding shortfalls created by the caps, and that’s been achieved, Dowell said. Fortunately, the shortfall for 2009 now appears to be less than the $420,139 originally predicted. (Dowell will present an exact figure at the library board meeting at 7 p.m. Tuesday.) But those consultants project the library’s property tax shortfalls to be $539,915 this year, and $465,000 next year, Dowell said. The rainy-day fund contains $1 million, but a looming roof replacement project could cost $500,000, she added.
They’ll find ways to make ends meet. “We’re hopeful we can do it,” Dowell said. “Now, that means we’re pinching pennies.”
A total of $300,000 has been trimmed from the library’s materials budget, largely through the branch closings. Every transaction process is being reviewed for possible cost-saving changes. Vigo County hasn’t charged fines for overdue materials since 1968, Dowell said, “and we’re proud of that.” Fines, she explained, don’t always result in the delinquent books, CDs and movies being returned. Now, though, fines are being considered. Fundraisers, such as weekly and monthly book sales by the Friends of the Library, contribute admirably.
Impressively, with all of the tightening and the significant jump in main-branch library traffic, the 57 full-time employees and 12 to 14 part-timers have answered the public’s need.
“We’ve had to look at our processes and how we can serve more people with, essentially, the same amount of staff,” Dowell said.
This year, Dowell is serving as president of the Indiana Library Federation, a coalition of librarians, trustees and supporters. The impact of permanent property-tax caps on library funding will be a prime topic in 2010. “As librarians and managers of tax dollars, it’s hard to come out and say, ‘I want to raise your taxes,’” Dowell said, “but that’s how we’re funded.”
No matter what happens, the Vigo County library will, no doubt, continue to make the best of its situation, just as it did before 2009 with five locations and nearly a million annual transactions. Even in the most trying economic period Dowell has seen since joining the library staff in 1984, she remains upbeat.
“I guess I consider myself an eternal optimist,” she said. “I still feel like we have the ability to serve the public’s need.”
Mark Bennett can be reached at (812) 231-4377 or email@example.com.
Mark Bennett: A year after budget cuts and closings, business is booming at the Vigo County Public Library’s main branch
With sleeves rolled up, the Vigo County Public Library swallowed hard, resisted complaining, and did what it had to …
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