Renée C. Byer /

Guests learn to English country dance at the fourth annual Jane Austen birthday tea last month at the main Sacramento Public Library, one of a wide range of programs offered at city libraries.

Editorial: Let Sacramento library boosters try to convince voters that libraries are worth higher taxes

Published: Tuesday, Jan. 14, 2014 - 12:00 am

Even in our high-tech times, Sacramento residents are using public libraries more often. The City Council would be wise to let voters decide whether they value libraries enough to pay higher taxes for them.

The proposed June 3 ballot measure before council members tonight calls for a $12 supplemental parcel tax, which would raise $1.9 million a year to shore up the library system’s finances.

Of the three options presented to council members, city staffers are recommending the mid-priced one – in between only renewing the existing $30 parcel tax for libraries or seeking an increase to $49. It seems a reasonable path, protecting services at all 12 city library branches without placing too heavy a burden on property owners.

Library officials say the current library levy – plus $7.6 million a year from the city’s general fund – isn’t enough to keep up with higher operating expenses, including three recently opened branches. The library system has been tapping its reserves, which could be emptied by 2016.

Without more money, the officials warn, services could be slashed further and some branches might have to be shuttered. Because older ones don’t have any bond debt, they would likely be first on the chopping block.

If approved, the supplemental tax would last 12 years. It would have the same expiration date as the current library tax – assuming that voters agree in 2016 to renew it for another 10 years.

A council vote tonight to put the measure on the ballot is only the first hurdle – and not the highest one.

Parcel taxes require a two-thirds majority to pass; the recent track record for library measures in California is mixed. Since 2001, 36 local library taxes have failed and 33 have passed, according to the count kept by local government finance analyst Michael Coleman.

Sacramento library boosters are encouraged by a poll, conducted last month, that showed 73 percent support for the $12 supplemental tax.

Still, it’s early yet and they have some heavy lifting to do. While the current parcel tax won 72 percent of the vote in 2004, that was before the Great Recession and housing crash that forced many residents to tighten their belts.

A parcel tax hike for libraries could also be a tougher sell than the sales tax increase for public safety and parks that Sacramento voters approved in November 2012. With only a simple majority required, Measure U passed with 63 percent.

A tax hike for libraries is no sure bet. Yet, libraries have a strong community appeal, as evidenced by the 30 percent increase in Sacramento residents with library cards and 80 percent jump in attendance at programs since 2008.

Library boosters deserve the chance to translate that support into votes.

Read more articles by the Editorial Board

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