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Library looks at new district to help alleviate funding woes

English author and politician Augustine Birrell once said of libraries, "They are not made; they grow." If this is the case, San Antonio's public libraries are experiencing a growth slump. According to John Nicholas, chairperson of the San Antonio Public Library Board of Trustees, the city's libraries receive less per-capita funding - $12 - than libraries in any other major Texas city. Austin's funding is $25 per person, Fort Worth and Dallas, $20, and Houston, $18. Only El Paso, with $11, ranks lower than San Antonio. Also, the state requires that libraries provide the equivalent of two items per resident; San Antonio has 1.5.

"If we look at about the last 10 years, the funding for the library has not kept pace with the demand. It's relatively flat," says Nicholas.

For San Antonio library advocates looking to add financial fertilizer, the answer may lie in Senate Bill 1205, authored by San Antonio Democrat Frank Madla, which would allow the creation of a local, self-governed library district. Initially, a library district would function similarly to how the library operates under the City's jurisdiction. A board of trustees would still handle library operations, and most of the funding would still come from the City's general fund. Nicholas says the primary short-term benefit of a library district is that it removes the library from the annual scuffle between departments for a portion of the city budget. "The idea is to eliminate the middleman. Essentially, the library would be accountable to the voters. The objective is to set us apart in a dedicated funding stream," Nicholas says.

Over the long term, the library district could take a more proactive approach to generating funds. Under SB 1205, the library district can impose a property tax of no more than 15 cents per $100 valuation or a sales tax of no more than one-half of 1 percent. Voters would have to approve either tax measure or a combination of the two.

Nicholas says a tax for the district is planned but he maintains that the immediate purpose of the district is to avoid budget cuts and stabilize, rather than increase, funding. He adds that a property or sales tax for the library district would likely be offset by lowering other City or County taxes. While the majority of City Council members have endorsed the library-district plan, some members expressed concern about the prospect of new taxes and the importance of libraries compared to issues such as crime and infrastructure. "I'm concerned with the ability to levy the tax," says District 4 Councilman Richard Perez. "We have a limited pot of money, and there are competing needs. The question is, what do we want to do as a community? And I don't think we've had that kind of dialogue."

"The question is, what do we want to do as a community? And I don't think we've had that kind of dialogue."

District 4 Councilman
Richard Perez
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Texas Senate and House committees have approved the bill, and Intergovernmental Relations Manager Ray Baray, who presented a proposal for the library district to City Council in April, expects a final version to be on the governor's desk within the week.

In addition to stabilizing funding, a library district would also bridge the gap between San Antonio and Bexar County library patrons, says Baray. The current library board of trustees consists of 11 members nominated by City Council and the mayor. Under the proposed new library district, City Council would appoint four members to the board and Bexar County Commissioners would appoint the remaining three.

The library district was proposed by a planning group that convened as the San Antonio Library celebrated its centennial anniversary in 2003. According to Nicholas, the board of trustees analyzed other cities' systems in an attempt to address concerns about funding shortfalls. "We didn't get `money` to fix the roof of the main library, and we have water leaking on critical historical documents. There are people who believe the library service is out of date, that the internet is replacing it, but our business is up," says Nicholas. "Libraries are a critical part of education, particularly for young people. The bottom line is, if we don't do something, we may not be here for the next 100-year anniversary."

By Elyas Bakhtiari

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