Guest commentary: Champaign library facing tough decisions
By MARK BALLARD
Eight years ago, the Champaign community made a significant investment in a new public library. That investment has paid off beyond most people's expectations, with use of the library increasing by 55 percent since opening in 2008. Today we have an award-winning, nationally recognized library that is visited by an average of 3,000 community members each day.
The Champaign Public Library Board of Trustees wants to make community members aware that the library is faced with a budget deficit for the coming fiscal year and beyond. The board of trustees takes the job of being responsible stewards of Champaign tax dollars very seriously. We understand that we need to operate the library within the constraints of the revenue we collect. Because of that, we have had to consider reductions in operating hours at both the main library and at the Douglass Branch if no other city funds can be directed to the library.
This deficit stems from one simple fact: Our tax revenue has fallen, but our expenses have continued to rise.
This situation did not come about because of the financial problems with the state nor the federal government. The library depends primarily on Champaign real estate taxes, which provide 92 percent of our revenue. The library's tax rate has remained the same for more than 20 years, but the property tax revenue we receive has fallen each year since 2009 due to the drop in real estate values in our community.
Our historic experience was that Champaign real estate values would increase annually and that increase kept pace with rising costs without the need to increase our tax rate. However, that historic relationship changed due to the recession and the decline in the real estate market.
Falling real estate values have required library trustees and administration to demonstrate a high degree of fiscal responsibility and to make difficult choices. Knowing that property tax revenues were projected to decline, we reduced spending in almost all budget lines.
Significant reductions include: eliminating the bookmobile; leaving 14 staff positions vacant; not giving raises to staff for two years; cutting spending on collections, programs, maintenance, supplies and training; and limiting borrowing of materials by library users who do not reside in Champaign-Urbana.
However, these changes, along with increases to overdue fines and rental fees, are no longer sufficient to offset rising costs. Next fiscal year's budget shows a $500,000 deficit beginning July 1, and that deficit increases annually as projected revenues fall, then stabilize at a lower level, while expenses continue to rise.
Personnel costs are the greatest expense for a service organization like the library. Reducing personnel costs enough to operate the library within the projected tax revenue would require the library to reduce service by 31 hours each week. After careful consideration, we have determined that the following changes in library hours will produce the needed reduction in expenditures. On weekdays, the main library would open at 10 a.m. instead of 9 a.m., and would close at 7 p.m. rather than 9 p.m. The Douglass Branch Library would be closed all day Monday and would close at 6 p.m. on weekdays rather than 8 p.m. Weekend hours would remain the same at both locations.
The board of trustees understands the impact this would have on Champaign taxpayers. Computer and Internet access would be significantly reduced for the 400 people using library computers each day at the main library and Douglass Branch. Seniors, preschoolers and their caregivers would be particularly impacted by the reduction in morning hours. Working people, families and students would be especially affected by the loss of evening hours. Community groups would have reduced access to library meeting rooms. And evening library programs, such as author visits, would no longer be possible.
The library trustees and administration are working with the city council to find a solution to bridge the gap between declining property tax revenues and increases in operating expenses. However, we want the public to be prepared for a reduction in hours if funds are not allocated by the city to cover the deficit.
In closing, I want to give credit to the library staff who have maintained a superior level of service to library users in spite of the reductions in personnel. Most in our community are not aware of the financial constraints that we have dealt with the past four years due to the diligent efforts of our staff who have made it their mission to serve the public to the highest degree possible.
Mark Ballard is president of the Champaign Public Library Board of Trustees.