Tax dedicated to library gets mixed voter results

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Last week, residents of five Allegheny County communities were asked to consider this: Would they pay more in property tax to support their local library?

Monroeville residents said no. So did residents from Harmar and Springdale Township.

But in Cheswick and Springdale Borough, voters said yes, and next year the extra contribution from property owners in the two communities along the Allegheny River will direct an additional $64,000 in funding to the Springdale Free Public Library, said Janet Tyree, its director.

"I feel like I can breathe a lot easier now, knowing that I have that money coming in," she said, although she said she was disappointed to not get affirmative votes and an additional $109,000 in funding from Harmar and Springdale Township, which the library also serves.

For public libraries in an age of budget cuts and evolving technology, funding is often a concern.

It was a worry a few years ago, when officials with the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh system said they planned to close or merge more than a handful of branches due to a shortfall in funding. The closures and mergers did not occur, since the state directed a portion of revenues from legalized table games to the library system. Another boost came in 2011, when city voters said yes to a special library property tax, which last year added $3.9 million to the Carnegie Library coffers.

Monroeville Public Library looked to the Carnegie referendum as a model, said Lisa Fennessy, library board president.

"We were really looking for a way to have sustainable funding," she said.

The Monroeville library, which this year is celebrating its 50th anniversary, has more than 15,000 library members and 141,000 annual visits. Its operating budget is $1.5 million, with most of the funding coming from Monroeville.

In recent years, however, that funding has dropped. The library received $1.4 million from the municipality in 2010. This year, the budgeted amount was $983,873.

The library filled the gap with additional funding from the state, from Allegheny County's Regional Asset District and from donations as well as by cutting costs, Ms. Fennessy said.

The referendum campaign kicked off in late 2013, with the library asking residents to support a 1-mill tax on real estate for operation and maintenance of the library, or the equivalent of an extra $100 a year on property assessed at $100,000. But partway through the library's campaign, Monroeville passed another, separate tax increase, she said. Asked last week to decide whether to add another one, the decision from Monroeville voters was decisive: no.

She said residents support their library. "I think what we suffered from, quite honestly, was just bad timing," she said.

The library will continue to seek additional sources of funding and hope that the municipality will continue to fund it at the same level, she said. But if the funding from Monroeville is cut further, she said, "we may have to start making some hard decisions." No changes are planned currently, she said.

At the Springdale Free Public Library, there will be changes, with the additional funding expected from Springdale Borough and Cheswick starting in 2015. Ms. Tyree said the library will be able to offer more materials, another computer and possibly longer hours.

The library, with 1,400 monthly visitors and an annual operating budget of $135,000, receives funding from a range of sources, including the state, the Regional Asset District and grants. It also receives donations each year from the four communities it serves, but the amounts were never guaranteed and have fluctuated over the years, Ms. Tyree said.

"Knowing that none of this money is guaranteed, we thought that we would try to get a guaranteed funding source, so that we wouldn't have to sweat out every year whether we were going to make it through the end of the year," she said.

They asked each community to enact a property tax of 0.25 mill. For owners of homes assessed at $100,000, it would amount to about $25.

Paul Jack, president of Cheswick council, which has donated $2,000 to the library annually, declined to say how or whether he voted on the referendum. But he said he "saw the merits" of the proposal.

"Funding has always been an issue relative to libraries and public services like that," he said.

He said he talked to people who were against it, who said they did not use the library often or were unsure of what the future would hold for libraries, and people who were for it, who said they supported it because the library was always updating its services.

Ultimately, Cheswick voters supported it, though narrowly. So did residents of Springdale Borough, where the library is located. But John Molnar, a councilman, said he did not support the tax.

"No one is opposed to the library," he said. "It's a great thing."

He said the borough had supported the library by not charging it rent and by paying for improvements and some of the utilities as well as through donations, which were $3,000 from the budget this year, he said.

Now that the tax increase has been approved, the borough council will need to discuss its support of the library, including whether to continue the $3,000 donation and possibly whether to charge rent, he said.

Springdale Township, whose donation is $2,000 a year, voted it down by one vote. Harmar residents decided they did not have the money for the tax increase, said Pat Janoski, chairwoman of the Harmar supervisors.

"They're strapped for funds, our senior citizens in this town," she said.

She said Harmar would continue to make its donation of $3,000 a year to the library.

The library typically sends out a letter requesting a $25 donation from residents in all four communities. But following the tax referendum, Ms. Tyree said, they will stop sending out letters to the communities that approved it.

The library is still open to all, she said.

"It doesn't change what we're going to do. We still are here for everyone. We're not going to take a look at your driver's license, and see where you live," Ms. Tyree said.


Kaitlynn Riely: kriely@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1707.

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