The last 30 years has seen a surge in technological advances and the way people gather information. It’s also created a new crop of costs associated with keeping up with all the advances, and a tri-county library system is looking to face that challenge.
“We want to see if we can start building the 21st-century library that people have told us that they want,” said Steve Potter, director of the Mid-Continent Public Library.
The library is seeking approval of Proposition L — a tax increase that would increase its levy by 25 percent. Mid-Continent library officials say they’ll be serving about 1 million residents by 2025, which is double the number they were serving in 1983 — the last time the levy was raised.
Currently, its tax levy is 32 cents, which was lowered from 45 cents in 1991. A yes vote from a simple majority would bump it to 40 cents per $100 of assessed valuation.
For example, a property with the assessed value of $100,000 would have an increase in annual property cost of $15.20, or an extra $1.27 per month.
The proposed 8-cent increase would help finance the capital plan, balance operating budgets, and help with systemwide modernization. The library gets about 95 percent of its operating funds from the local property tax levy.
“The library is a very dynamic organization, and even some of the basic things about operations have changed,” Potter said. He pointed to the way the library expands its book and database collections now — offering services in print, online and audio.
Currently, the 31-branch library system serves about 785,000 residents in Clay, Platte and Jackson counties. The issue will appear before voters in all three counties despite a measure in Platte County to block it from the ballot.
The Platte County Commission voted to keep it off the ballot because commissioners take issue with the legality of it.
“They sent a resolution to us that did not meet the provisions of the statute,” Platte County Presiding Commissioner Ron Schieber said. “The county commission should not put something on the ballot that is not statutory. Many folks won’t take the time to read the statute — that’s why they elect us.”
Schieber said the library district needs to seek a separate proposal for any construction projects, since state law requires building and operational funds to come from separate taxes, with building taxes sunsetting in 10 years.
“We want great libraries, but we’re disappointed that they have taken and combined an operating levy with what looks like a building levy,” he said.
On Aug. 30, Platte County Judge Thomas Fincham ruled that county voters should have the option to vote on the tax levy increase.
“We contend still to this day what they’ve done doesn’t meet the statutory requirements,” Schieber said.
Library officials point to the fact that their branch upkeep doesn’t take just a decade of work, and that the Hancock Amendment keeps the system in check. The Hancock Amendment requires a public vote to raise a tax levy.
“The operating levy makes sense because of the ongoing nature of the maintenance,” said Jim Staley, marketing and communications director for the libraries. “We have ongoing maintenance that needs to go into our buildings.”
Library and county officials alike point to a long tradition of libraries funding improvements in this way — they just have different takes on it.
“We were following decades of tradition in libraries to suggest we were doing things the right way,” Staley said. “We sought out legal opinions and provided those to the county.”
Schieber has another take on it.
Libraries “have been doing this all over the state, and no one has ever challenged it,” Schieber said. “They’ve been doing it for decades and no one has ever called them on it, and we’re calling them on it.”
Schieber didn’t give specifics about if, or how, the commission would respond if the measure passes.
“We’re still evaluating options,” Schieber said. “I want people to understand we have no beef with the library district. We just want it done according to statute requirements like nearly every other taxing district has to do.”
The library board voted to place Proposition L on the ballot at its June meeting. Nancy Kraus-Womack, a Platte County representative, was the lone dissenting vote. She is a director of the small-government and anti-tax political action committee Missouri Club For Growth, according to a previous Star report.
Jackson and Clay counties moved the measure to their ballots without issue.
Potter said the library system wants to increase people’s access to library services — both within library buildings, community spaces and online. He said it was time for the system to reinvest in its buildings and bring them up to date and make them more relevant.
“The library needs to provide public access computing for people to file government forms and things like that because not everybody has access to a computer,” Potter said. “Everyone has the right and duty to communicate with their government.”
Voters in Platte, Jackson and Clay counties are being asked to approve a property tax increase for the Mid-Continent Library system.
The library levy would increase from 32 cents to 40 cents per $100 of assessed valuation. The owner of a property assessed at $100,000 would pay $15.20 more per year.
What it would pay for:
▪ Construction of six new or replacement library buildings and renovation of 28 library buildings
▪ Longer operating hours and faster internet in library branches
▪ Expanded services for children, students, seniors, and small-business owners
▪ Extra spending on physical and digital books, movies and music; and online instruction
Source: Mid-Continent Public Library