EDITOR'S NOTE

Choosing a Better Library

The future of Jacksonville’s public libraries is in voters’ hands

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How important are libraries these days?

Maybe you think they’re dinosaurs left behind by new technology and changing lifestyles.

Before you answer — when’s the last time you visited a library? If it’s been a while, maybe your perspective is a little dated.

Another thing to consider before you answer: How much do you need libraries?

If you have a computer and high-speed Internet at home and the means to buy books and periodicals, libraries may not play as big a role in your life, although many people with these amenities still choose the convenience and camaraderie provided by their community libraries.

If you’re one of the many who doesn’t have the means for personal connectivity, the library is an essential resource for finding and applying for jobs, training on digital tools, researching school projects, improving literacy, discovering entertainment and more.

Those necessities have faced continuing budget cuts at the Jacksonville Public Library. The mayor proposes cutting the library’s operating budget by $4.6 million in the coming fiscal year. This would mean cutting 24 percent of the operating hours, with no libraries open on Sunday, cutting the materials budget by $500,000 (a 49 percent cut since 2005) and eliminating 71 positions.

Year after year, the library has been forced to make cuts as part of the city’s continuing budget spiral. When competing with those of the police and fire departments, and infrastructure, the library’s needs seem to come up short.

One way to stop the slow destruction is to create an independent library district, an idea library advocates are supporting. Similar districts exist in Alachua and Orange counties and have proved to be very successful. This effort follows a JCCI Report to the Friends of the Jacksonville Public Library and the Jacksonville Public Libraries Foundation.

The proposal suggests creating an independent board comprising the mayor, three city councilmembers and the chair of the Duval County School Board. These members are all elected and still accountable to voters. This group would set a millage rate dedicated to sustaining the libraries, eliminating the amount taken from the taxes collected from the overall millage rate.

This would free the library from a stifling decision-making structure and allow it to make projections about revenue and expenditures up to 24 months or more, so it can plan projects, renovations, improvements and programs.

The library could pursue a variety of revenue growth and savings ideas. In Alachua County, the independent district allowed the library to refinance outstanding bonds, switch new employees from a private pension fund to the Florida Retirement System, lease rooftops to a solar energy company, retrofit buildings with LED lights and timers and lease undeveloped land for cell tower use — all to save or make money.

Funds could be used flexibly, moving from operations to capital projects or vice versa. They could be carried forward or be saved in a capital improvements account.

Difficult decisions about closing deteriorating library buildings could be made. Innovative ideas such as creating traveling after-school programs at individual schools could be implemented.

If the library could manage its own information technology budget, efficiencies could be gained and costs decreased. This is particularly important for a service that demands continuous technology innovation.

But these ideas cannot be adequately explored under the current structure, where the library board has no real authority.

Sol Hirsch, who retired as Alachua County Library District director in 2011, said the independent district there made the library more directly responsible to citizens. It allowed them to create programs like the Library Partnership collaboration with the Department of Children and Families and the not-for-profit Partnership for Strong Families. Jointly, they built and operated a facility that brought library and social services together under one roof.

Bill Brinton is an advocate for libraries and cofounder of Save Jax Libraries with Florida Sen. Audrey Gibson (D-Jacksonville) and Harry Reagan, president of Friends of the Jacksonville Public Library. (Full disclosure: Reagan is my father.) They recently kicked off a petition drive to place a straw ballot on the fall 2014 election ballot. This would gauge public support for an independent library district.

They need 26,000 petitions verified 180 days before that election.

“If these hard economic times taught us one thing, it is to look at how libraries could be run more efficiently and effectively,” Brinton said. “We’ve found that model. We should at least have the choice to have what Alachua has, as opposed to not being afforded that choice.”

Hirsch said that in Jacksonville’s current system, there’s no incentive for a department to save any money because savings go back to the government.

“We were totally responsible for all of our money and could manage it and keep it for the upcoming year,” Hirsch said. “We had a vested interest in saving money.”

Brinton and other library advocates face a steep hill going forward. Usually, the Florida Legislature is reluctant to create new taxing districts, and voters are hesitant to support anything that resembles a self-tax, even if the total amount they pay in property taxes remains the same.

“There are many people in Jacksonville who may not realize how much better that library could be if they had better control,” Hirsch said.

So when you see volunteers on Aug. 14 at your polling place, or in the future around town, give them a moment of your time. Sign a petition. It won’t cost you anything, but it will make voters’ voices heard.

If you’d like to help with the petition drive, go to savejaxlibraries.com and click on the volunteer button.

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