Advocacy Gets a Payday

September 29, 2010

It’s always an occasion for celebration when a funding authority sees fit to provide additional support to libraries. These days, it’s also a rare occasion. That’s why it was particularly heartening to receive press releases announcing budget increases for the Calcasieu Parish Public Library in Lake Charles, Louisiana, and the San Antonio (Tex.) Public Library, and to learn of more Recovery Act funding for libraries—this time through the Department of Agriculture.

Michael Sawyer, director of Calcasieu Parish Public Library, revealed that his library is receiving a whopping 12% funding hike for FY2011, after having gained a 6% increase in FY2010. How on earth did this parish library accomplish such a miracle in such tough times? Sawyer explained that 91% of voters who turned out in 2009 approved a mill-levy hike from 5.42 to 5.99. The result is an annual budget that is expected to soar from $7.6 million to $8.5 million as of January 2011, and with it employee salaries (by 2%), the number of staff (1.5 FTE), the addition of 25 workstations, and the replacement of some 40 existing computers.

“Calcasieu Parish Public Library is fortunate to have its budget tied to property tax rather than sales tax during an economic downturn,” Sawyer said, adding, “Having large industries based in the parish increases the amount of property tax collected.”

Of course, libraries reliant on mill levies for their solvency are all too aware that property values have been anything but stable and reliable recently, so it’s good to know that somewhere—and that Calcasieu Parish’s library services will grow as a result of its constituents’ support.

Library boosters are also painfully aware that many beleaguered officials have tried to balance their localities’ budgets on the backs of public libraries. But the San Antonio Public Library has received an FY2011 boon of some $3 million because of the city council, City Manager Sheryl Sculley, and Mayor Julián Castro. The additional funding, effective October 1, includes $900,000 toward addressing deferred maintenance for facilities, $275,000 extra for acquisitions, and operating funds for three new branches slated to open by early 2012. Library Director Ramiro Salazar praised city officials for “recognizing the importance of the public library in shaping the future of our city” and trustees for working closely with Friends, the library foundation, and “the community at large.”

But the sweetest announcement of all, to my mind, was that of the Department of Agriculture, which revealed September 24 that it is providing nearly $15 million in capital grants and loans to 129 rural public libraries in 30 states. Part of its Rural Development’s Community Facilities program, the department’s appropriations of Recovery Act funds will help small towns realize projects big and small: everything from the repair of leaky roofs to the expansion, renovation, and construction of libraries themselves. A few libraries will even be able to purchase their first-ever barcoding equipment.

It’s not the size of the appropriation that impressed me, but the belief in libraries expressed by Agriculture Secretary (and former Iowa governor) Tom Vilsack and his wife Christie Vilsack. “When you invest in a library, what you’re saying to the townspeople is that you really believe in the future of that community,” Secretary Vilsack asserted. Christie Vilsack, who as Iowa’s first lady visited more than 500 libraries in the state during her RAGBRAI biking-marathon days (AL, Oct. 2002, p. 44–46), went a step further. “It’s my strong belief that no community is complete without a public library,” she said, citing their role in every aspect of lifelong learning. “Our libraries are really the souls of our communities.”