Billions Not Millions Needed, Urge Some Advocates

December 19, 2008

I received an e-mail message earlier this week from Dick and Marjorie Waters of Godfreys Associates, library consultants in Rhode Island, letting me know that they had send a letter to the Rhode Island congressional delegation—Senators Jack Reed and Sheldon Whitehouse and Representatives Patrick Kennedy and Jim Langevin. "With all due respect to ALA President James Rettig," Dick Waters says, "a $100 million stimulus package is far too modest for what is needed." He was referring to the ALA announcement that the Association's Washington Office is asking for a $100 million stimulus package to aid the nation’s working families during the current economic crisis. Waters attached a copy of the letter describing instead a $5 billion package for public library construction plus a second piece to make sure that state aid is not lost in those states where such aid is provided. "Perhaps American Libraries and/or the Association can encourage its readers to contact their congresspersons to support a public library initiative in President-elect Obama's stimulus plans," he urged. Waters attached a copy of the letter to Rep. Kennedy, which reads as follows: Mr. Kennedy, these are difficult times that many—probably most—of us are facing.  Bold, decisive, caring action needs to be taken.  We believe our new President will put forth a plan that is bold, decisive, and caring.  We urge you and Representative Langevin—and your colleagues across the aisle in the House of Representatives and in the Senate—to support his plan and to work hard to include our suggestions presented herein. The number one reason for supporting the economic stimulus package we are suggesting in this letter is our children and their education.  Four points to be made: 1. President-elect Obama campaigned – and continues to promote – the need to improve education in the USA.  We could not agree more.  Public libraries are a very important component of the educational fabric of this country. 2. For the youngest of us, the public library can be – and quite often is – where the educational process starts via a wide variety of programs, activities, books, and other learning aids and methods for children from the cradle to the start of kindergarten or pre-K.   It is difficult to provide quality programming in buildings that are too small, inadequately furnished and equipped, not energy efficient, etc. 3. In increasing numbers, parents are home schooling their children and the public library is one of the major resources they turn to.  They pay local taxes for public schools and their local public libraries.  They benefit from the latter. 4. It is widely speculated here in Rhode Island that the State will eliminate, or drastically reduce, the aid to local governments in order to close the budget gap.  This could mean each Ocean State public library might lose as much as 20 percent (20%) of its operating revenue.  Hours would be reduced, programs suspended, book purchases curtailed, etc.  The educational aspect of local libraries would be harmed – and thus so would our children! Within the next 45-60 days you, Representative Langevin, and other distinguished members of the United State House of Representatives will be presented with a very large and—we sincerely hope—comprehensive economic stimulus bill designed to put folks to work, improve our infrastructure and the buildings where are children endeavor to learn, in short, start the process of digging ourselves out of the recession – or should we dare say depression—this country of ours finds itself in. We urge you to support the bill after you have had an opportunity to study it carefully, ask the questions that need to be asked, and get answers to your questions.  To do anything less would be a disservice to all. The reported speculation re what the bill will contain has centered on rebuilding our roads, bridges, and school buildings.  All worthy causes, all real needs across this great land of ours – and especially needed here in The Ocean State. To this we strongly urge you, Mr. Langevin, and others in the House to consider the following as most worthy additions to the package that will constitute the economic stimulus bill. A. Add $5 billion for public library construction projects  with the following provisions: 1. Local government and/or 501 C (3) organizations  MUST provide the land and retain ownership of the land. 2. Local government and/or 501 C (3) organizations MUST provide 25 percent of the total project costs (site preparation, hard construction, furniture and equipment, technology, permits, and architectural fees). 3. Local governments and/or 501 C (3) organizations WOULD receive Cash Grants equal to 50 percent of the total project costs and a LOAN equal to 25 percent of the total project costs, said loan to be re-paid within ten (10) years of completion and the official dedication of the project.  The loan would carry a simple interest rate of five percent (5%). 4. The maximum amount of a federal grant plus loan would be $25 million per project. 5. The local building project must have completed adequate planning and have construction documents ready to bid within six months of receiving funds.  6. Funds would be channeled through the respective state governments – but the states would not have “veto” power. 7. A pre-qualification process for selecting contractors would be strongly suggested in order to prevent local government and/or 501 C (3) organizations from awarding contracts to the low bidder which can all too often result in inferior construction and/or far too many change orders as the low bidder tries to recover from his/her unrealistic original bid. B. Provide to each state that has a state aid program for local public libraries  a direct grant equal to the total amount of state aid distributed the past two fiscal years (either FY06 & 07 or FY07 & 08) with the following provisions: 1. The funds would be distributed per existing rules and regulations in each state except that the requirement that the local municipality (or county as the case may be in some states) fund in FY08 & 09 or FY09 & 10) at the same level as the immediate past fiscal year be set aside until we come out of this economic crisis. 2. The funds would be distributed over two years in equal amounts each year. 3. Local public libraries would file a report per existing rules and regulations that documents how the funds were used, etc. 4. Any unexpended funds would be returned to the Federal treasury with simple interest at five percent (5%). Mr. Kennedy, here are the benefits of what we are proposing: 1. The construction projects will have positive economic impact locally and nationally.  Local architects and contractors will get work designing and building the libraries; firms that manufacture library furniture and equipment will have work; raw material suppliers will benefit, and technology companies will have computers, printers, scanners, etc. to make and sell. 2. Many small and inadequate public library buildings will be replaced with either (a) a totally new facility or (b) an expanded and renovated facility. 3. Those buildings that are replaced – in some instances – may be able to be put back on the tax rolls for other uses thus adding a bit to the assessed valuation of local, county, and/or state governments. The above, while we believe is quite valid, is not the number one reason for supporting this economic stimulus package.  The number one reason, as stated above, is our children and their education.  We cannot afford to do any less. I asked Emily Skeketoff, director of the ALA Washington Office about the amount ALA was recommending, and she said it had already changed. "The $100 million was for employment," she said, "but it is now $600 million—no dollar amount on construction, but we are just trying to be part of it." The problem with even $600 million, ALA members are telling me, is that even that amount trickles down to only about a couple-three bucks per library user in the country per year, hardly enough to buy even a book per patron, much less finance new building projects. Federal support for publicly funded libraries has always been a small piece of the library funding pie and is likely to remain so, but I'm happy to put forth the amibitions of Dick and Marjorie Waters. If we are going to lobby for federal support, we might as well ask for something that will truly have an impact. The difference between libraries and everyone else with a hand out for federal money is that libraries are not asking to be bailed out; we are asking for support that will enable us to continue the successful work we are already doing. The demand grows, even as philanthropic and public funding sources threaten to dry up. Visit the I Love Libraries and the Washington Office websites to learn what you can do.