Thursday, Oct. 18, 2012 | 2 a.m.
The Henderson Library District is asking residents for a bump in property taxes to stave off branch closures and additional cutbacks, but the Nevada Policy Research Institute says the district is relatively healthy financially and proponents of the initiative are misleading voters.
The political action committee Citizens for Henderson Libraries and the “Rescue My Library” campaign have been working in support of the tax initiative. On one campaign poster, a girl, head in hands, is standing in the middle of a barren desert, surrounded by empty, toppled-over bookshelves and a sign that reads: “Notice: Henderson Library is Permanently Closed.”
The text of the poster reads: “Don’t let this happen: Without your vote libraries will close. Programs and services will be reduced and eliminated. Once this happens, it will be too late to save them.”
Victor Joecks, communications director for NRPI, a local libertarian think tank with a mission to reduce taxes and government regulation, said tax proponents are being sensationalist and he believes the libraries are relatively healthy given the current state of the economy.
“It’s not this all-or-nothing proposition that’s being put out there,” Joecks said. “The system has grown very healthfully, faster than population growth would dictate. They take the high-water mark for funding, then say they have been cut so much from that high-water mark and now we need a tax increase. ... The library system is doing very well. This is a choice between growing at a rapid rate or an exorbitant rate.”
The library district is independent from the city of Henderson, and the majority of its $7 million budget comes from property taxes. The district’s prerecession funding high was approximately $10 million. The district expects property values to continue to slide in the next few years, further decreasing its funding. It argues the Galleria and Malcolm library branches will be shuttered if the tax initiative, which would raise property taxes by 2 cents per $100 in assessed value, does not pass.
Thomas Fay, Henderson Library District executive director, said efficiencies have been exhausted. The library has cut hours numerous times, and at the beginning of October, district libraries started closing on Mondays. The number of full-time equivalent staff hit a high of 101 in 2009, just after the district reopened a renovated Green Valley branch that had been transferred in 2005 from the Las Vegas-Clark County Library District. In fiscal 2011, the Henderson district had the equivalent of 86.5 full-time employees. Fay said staff from Malcolm and Galleria branches have been finding new jobs amid the uncertainty, and the total staff currently stands at the equivalent of 77.5 full-time employees. He is holding off on hiring anyone until after the tax initiative vote.
If the initiative is approved, the district is estimating a revenue boost of approximately $1.5 million in the first year of collection, fiscal 2013-2014.
“This doesn’t fix everything,” Fay said. “We’ve lost $2.5 million, heading toward $3 million, a year. We feel we have put in a lot of efficiencies, and this is just enough to get us through the next 10 years.”
Joecks, though, points out salaries and benefits for the library district have increased faster than the rate of inflation. From 2000 to 2011, the average salary of district full-time employees rose 12 percent after adjusting for inflation, or 1 percent faster than the rate of inflation per year. Joecks also singles out Fay for his combined salary and benefits of $146,388 in 2011. For comparison, Kathy Pernell, director of the North Las Vegas Library District, took home $191,521 in salary and benefits in 2011 while Jeanne Goodrich, Las Vegas-Clark County Library District executive director, received $212,540 in salary and benefits in 2011, according to Transparent Nevada.
Henderson district employees took a 10 percent pay cut in 2010 that is still in effect. Meanwhile, the average cost of health insurance doubled during from 1999 to 2009. The district picks up 100 percent of an employee’s health insurance costs, but employees must pay to add spouses or dependents to their coverage.
“It’s fair to say a good chunk of the increase in salary and benefits over that time span was from the rising costs of benefits,” Fay said. “Health care costs would rise 7 to 8 percent in some years.”
In 1997, the district collected $19.12 per resident in tax revenue adjusted for inflation, and in 2012, it received $24.96 per resident, a 30.5 percent increase.
During that 15-year span, the district grew exponentially. Library branches tripled from two to six. Henderson’s population nearly doubled while circulation rose 424 percent and the number of library materials jumped 254 percent. Also, in the past decade, Henderson, like libraries across the country, has raced to catch up technologically, offering e-books and more computers for public use.
According to the American Library Association, the national average for library district expenditures is $38.59 in revenue per resident, and the range goes from a low of $16.46 per person to $77.34.
Joecks believes voters are being misled on the ramifications of the tax initiative. The tax would last for 30 years but can be lowered from the maximum of 2 cents per $100 in assessed value at the discretion of the district. Language on the tax initiative, which is called Question 1 on the ballot, says the tax will be levied for “purposes including, without limitation, operating and maintaining library facilities (excluding employee salaries and benefits), and acquiring, constructing, equipping and improving library facilities ...”
NPRI argues that because the money that was previously used for services and materials could be shifted to salaries and benefits, the promise of not putting increased tax revenue toward employee salary and benefits is empty.
“It’s so disingenuous,” Joecks said. “They get the money for supplies and services, and that sounds good to voters, but it really has no meaning. They can’t say for certain that additional money won’t go to salaries and benefits. I predict that they will expand the library with the (increased revenue), and then because they are dealing with extra material, they’ll say they deserve a pay increase.”
The district counters that the tax is for maintaining the status quo and the board’s primary goal is to return some of the lost hours and services. If the libraries were to reopen on Mondays, for example, some money not currently spent on salaries would have to be moved.
Joecks also argued that there will be no accountability to the voters over a 30-year span as few in the public will have the diligence to keep track of the how the revenue is spent.
Joecks and NPRI argue that closing the Galleria and Malcolm library branches would be an appropriate market adjustment to the current economic situation.
“People are always willing to close a branch when it’s not the library you are going to or not the branch near you,” Fay said. “But for the people that branch serves, it’s critical to them. The Malcolm branch is six times smaller than Boulder City, but it circulates more material than Boulder City’s library. The Galleria mall serves the east-central side of town and allows some people who aren’t always reached by library services to access them. It’s not about the size of the library, it’s about access to materials and access to a gateway to matetials through online services.”
By statute, the library district cannot charge for general services and under state law the mission of each public library is to “to meet the informational needs of all citizens.”