Opinion Columns & Blogs

Editorial: Library supporters must speak out to win parcel tax increase

Public libraries should be as much a basic city service as public safety and parks, yet sometimes they end up at the back of the line at budget time.

The City Council needs to help shore up the precarious finances of the Sacramento Public Library. One approach it is scheduled to start debating Tuesday is a possible ballot measure next year to boost the library parcel tax.

The current parcel tax – $30 a year for a single-family home – is generating about $4.9 million this fiscal year. The library system also receives $7.6 million from the city’s general fund, including $507,000 from the Measure U sales tax increase that voters approved last November.

That money isn’t enough, library officials say, to keep up with increased operating costs from three new city branches opening in 2009 and 2010 (Valley Hi-North Laguna, North Natomas and Robbie Waters Pocket-Greenhaven) and from higher patronage.

Since 2008, the library system says, program attendance has jumped 86 percent, the number of residents with library cards has increased by 30 percent and there has been an 11 percent growth in visits. Sacramentans are checking out books and videos, using computers, getting homework help, attending lectures and community events and much more.

Even after reducing hours and staff after budget cuts, the library says it is having to dip into its reserves – $464,500 this fiscal year and nearly $1 million in 2014-15 – and could have to empty that fund in 2016. Library officials offer surveys on staffing and expenditures to claim that they are operating efficiently compared with other similar library systems in California.

Without a longer-term cash infusion, library officials say, they would soon have to make deeper cuts to services and staffing, and likely close some of the city’s 12 branches. Sacramento should not let that happen.

There are three options up for discussion by the council:

• Ask voters to renew the existing parcel tax, which started on July 1, 2007, and expires June 30, 2017. This would not avoid significant cuts.

• Seek approval to renew the existing tax, plus ask for a $12 annual supplemental parcel tax, which would raise an additional $1.9 million a year. This would maintain services at all 12 branches through 2017-18, but after that could require service cuts or additional money.

• Ask voters to increase the parcel tax to $49 a year, generating an additional $3 million a year. This would stabilize the library system’s finances and could allow some additional services, possibly opening some branches six days a week.

In looking at these alternatives, council members will have to balance the needs of libraries with the tax burden on residents.

In 2004, 72 percent of voters approved Measure X to replace a special assessment for libraries with the 10-year parcel tax. Last November, 63 percent voted for Measure U, the half-cent sales tax hike that is restoring cuts to police, fire and parks.

How much more are voters willing to tax themselves? A parcel tax needs a two-thirds majority to pass.

To put a measure on the June 3 ballot, the council has to act by Jan. 21. It could also opt to wait for the November election, but that would delay revenue from a higher parcel tax by a full year.

If library supporters want a parcel tax increase, they should speak up. If they don’t, they can’t be too surprised if libraries get short shrift again.