Strong libraries: Wise public investments bolster the Carnegie

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City taxpayers made a smart investment in Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh five years ago, and they are seeing solid returns on it.

Four branches that had been set to close remain open, some buildings have new air conditioning systems or elevators, and — the best news of all — libraries in the system are open longer than they were in 2011. The main facility in Oakland and the Squirrel Hill library are open seven days a week, and the remaining 16 branches operate every day but Sunday.

Taxpayer dollars are the big reason for the library’s success and the reason that a sound financial future lies ahead.

Defying the attitude that the public resents all forms of taxation, city voters approved a referendum by a two-to-one margin, establishing a property tax of 0.25 mill, with all proceeds going to the library system. In giving the OK to the library tax, the public agreed with a founding principle of Andrew Carnegie himself; he established the libraries and donated the facilities but left it to the system’s beneficiaries to fund the day-to-day operations.

Before the tax, the city of Pittsburgh contributed $40,000 to the system’s annual operating budget. Last year, the library tax generated $3.9 million — $900,000 higher than even the library had anticipated due to Allegheny County’s property reassessment. The library also got a boost from state gambling revenue, which started flowing in 2011 and, in 2013, totaled $705,000.

Beyond the new revenue, the library held an aggressive fundraising campaign that collected about $2.6 million, and the system continued to get the largest portion of its operating funds from the Regional Asset District sales tax of 1 percent. In 2013, the RAD board allocated $19.1 million to the library.

Taxpayers who did the right thing and voted to keep the city’s enviable library system healthy owe it to themselves to take advantage of the many resources their libraries provide.

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