Running a $46-million, “world-class” library costs money, too

Officials working on strategy to fund library operation costs

Rick Smith
Published: February 7 2014 | 3:30 am - Updated: 29 March 2014 | 3:19 am in
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CEDAR RAPIDS — Cedar Rapids Public Library Director Bob Pasicznyuk knows what he knew even before contractors moved a first shovel of dirt at the site of the city’s sparkling, $46 million downtown library.

Five months and two weeks after the new downtown library opened, Pasicznyuk put it this way: "I think every library in the nation will tell you that it’s much easier to get capital (to build a library) than it is money to operate it."

Proof that the city’s new library is a good one, he said, will be in the ongoing community and City Council support to see that the library is able to operate successfully.

"It’s an amazing facility with a great collection, and we need to sustain it or we won’t," he said.

The new central library opened in late August following on the heels of the debut of an expanded westside branch library in leased space in part of what had been a Target store, at 3750 Williams Blvd. SW.

Not a penny of debt was needed to pay to build the new central library or to renovate space for the new westside branch, thanks to federal and state disaster dollars, revenue from the city’s local-option sales tax and private donations.

Even so, the new library openings in 2013 — which ended a five-year, post-flood limbo to an end with the library hunkered down at Westdale Mall — brought the challenge of paying to operate the libraries into immediate focus.

In the current budget year, which runs through June 30, the City Council and the City’s library board did some fiscal maneuvering as they directed an additional $800,000 of revenue from the city’s local-option sales tax for flood recovery to the downtown library’s construction budget. At the same time, the library’s private foundation agreed to shift $800,000 in private donations into library operations.

The City Council is now in the midst of approving a budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1, and City Manager Jeff Pomeranz has told the City Council that the city’s library operation still has some funding "issues."

"A long-term funding strategy needs to be developed," he said.

In fact, the final touches on the library’s new $5 million-plus annual budget are still being made, with some surplus funds from the existing year’s library budget and, perhaps, some additional revenue from the city’s local-option sales tax being considered to help.

To keep matters in perspective, Library Director Pasicznyuk said the Cedar Rapids library operation is making a major transition from its flood-recovery phase, in which the Federal Emergency Management Agency paid the library’s rent in temporary quarters and paid to rebuild the library’s collection.

The city’s library operation now has ramped up to normal operations with the equivalent of 61 full-time employees, up from 43 during the library’s flood-recovery phase, and up, too, from 56 before the 2008 flood.

One way to contain the budget costs, Pasicznyuk said, has been to limit the hours of part-time employees to 19 a week, so they don’t qualify for partial health insurance benefits. The library now has 21 full-time employees and 40 part-time.

"The question is, will you get a sustainable work force, will they hang with us, are they going to be committed?" he said.

To date, plenty of people compete when a part-time slot opens up, he said. Some prefer a 19-hour workweek, which they can fit around children and school, he added.

Among the priorities of Pasicznyuk and of the nine-member library board is to make sure that the library has sufficient revenue to refresh the library’s collection of materials each year.

In the short-term, this isn’t a problem. The library still has about $1 million in FEMA federal disaster funds it must spend by the end of 2013 to replace contents from the former library lost to the 2008 flood.

The longer term is the question.

At the end of this fiscal year on June 30, the library’s special 4-cent-per-$1,000 of property valuation for books ends. That levy has raised about $250,000 a year for the library’s collection.

The library board did not ask voters in November to renew the levy or enlarge it — it can increase to 27 cents — for two reasons: Voters already were being asked to extend the local-option sales tax to fix streets, which they approved; and because, said Joe Lock, chairman of the library board’s finance committee, it wasn’t fair to ask voters to renew the levy with new libraries just coming on line.

That said, Lock said he expects the library board will ask voters for a new library levy the next time it can, in November 2015.

Lock said Cedar Rapids is fortunate to have a "world-class" library and an enlarged westside branch, called the Ladd Library. No facilities in the city draw more people, he said.

Yet a quality library needs to replace at least 10 percent of its collection each year, Lock said. He said Pasicznyuk is correct when he says no one goes to the grocery store for old produce.

"You don’t to go to the library either if it has nothing but old books," Lock said.

Pasicznyuk said the arrival of electronic books isn’t going to end the relevance of libraries as repositories of books any time soon. Even so, only about 3 percent of the Cedar Rapids library’s book circulation comes from downloading e-books, which he said is an amount that the library needs to work to increase.

It’s likely too early to divine where the library’s circulation numbers — which include paper books, e-books and other media such as movies — will land at the downtown and westbranch libraries, what with the novelty of the two facilities yet to wear off.

In the last four months of 2013, though, circulation at the downtown library was up 8 percent from the same pre-flood period in 2007 — 354,577, up from 328,632 — and the figures were up 175 percent at the new westside branch — 144,384, up from 52,625.

Even so, Pasicznyuk said these numbers, while important, may not be the best figures to count.

As an example, Pasicznyuk said the Columbus, Ohio, Metropolitan Library has decided to focus on how it can create programs to help increase the number of children who are ready for school rather than worrying so much about circulation figures.

"They said, ‘We’re measuring the wrong stuff if we really are here to make life better,’" he said.

For that reason, he said the Cedar Rapids library now is embarking on programs with the United Way and the Young Parents Network to intensify the educational help it provides to children.

At the same time, he said the library, like best libraries, is returning to what libraries started out to be a century ago — that is, centers for community activity, rather than warehouses for old books.

Amber Mussman, the library’s community relations manager, said 38,700 people and more than 60 organizations have come to the downtown library since its opening in late August 2013 for a meeting or special event in a building that now features an assortment of large and small meeting rooms as well as conference rooms and a two-story-tall auditorium with giant glass windows looking out on Greene Square Park.

Mussman said the library now hosts birthday parties and baby showers, too, and 13 weddings are scheduled so far for this spring and summer. In May, an area high school will hold its prom at the library, she added.

"What does my heart the most good," Pasicznyuk said, "is to see Cedar Rapidians celebrating their lives here. … We’re here to provide them with resources where they can enrich their lives. And I see that happening every day."

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