Saturday, July 12, 2014

TOP STORY >> Two sides split over library tax

Leader staff writer

Skeptics of building a new $6 million library in Sherwood with a temporary 1.3-mill increase to be voted on in November say residents need to know what they’re buying.

One critic also argues that the city has other needs and that residents don’t want more taxes.

Bobby Roberts, director of the Central Arkansas Library System (CALS), said voters would likely be buying a $4.5 million facility, plus acreage.

He explained that the new Jacksonville library, which opened in 2009, cost $4.58 million. That amount included furniture, the 350,000-square-foot building and architectural and engineering fees.

The new library in Sherwood would be the same size, which is appropriate for a population of nearly 30,000, Roberts said. “Costs never go down,” he added.

Land acquisition was not included in the $4.58 million cost. Jacksonville bought the land its library sits on, the director said. Land for a Sherwood library could cost $1.5 million or more, he said.

Roberts also said experts think the proposed 1.3 mills will only generate $5 million in bonds, so the $6 million is a hopeful cap set by those who petitioned for the vote.

For the owners of $150,000 houses, a positive vote for constructing and equipping a new branch to replace the Amy Sanders Library on Shelby Road would mean a $39 increase to the 50.8-mill property tax homeowners are paying now.

The millage rate is the second lowest in Pulaski County.

That rate is not based on appraised or fair market values, but on assessed values. The accessed value of a house is 20 percent of what it is worth.

Mayoral candidate Doris Anderson pointed out that, according to the ordinance the city council passed to set the vote, all personal property — not just houses — would also be taxed. Personal property includes things like vehicles and boats.

An increase of 1.3 mills would equate to $13 for every $10,000 in the assessed value of a home. Personal property would also be taxed based on its assessed value.

Roberts said the proposed millage increase is temporary. It will expire when the bonds are paid off, he said.

Roberts said the city could decide to issue 20-year, 10-year or 5-year bonds. He expects that, considering the growth of Sherwood’s tax base, a 20-year bond could be paid off in less than 12 years.

Roberts backed his support for the project with figures about how much libraries are utilized.

The director said, of about 320,000 people served by CALS, approximately 168,000 — more than half — have library cards that are used on a regular basis.

The system sees about 2.5 million people coming in and out of its buildings each year, he noted.

Roberts said Sherwood’s Amy Sanders Library issued 14,500 cards last year. That is almost half of the city’s 2010 population. That population was 29,523, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

In 2013, the Amy Sanders Library had an annual circulation of 167,000, Roberts said. That is how many items were checked out.

Its annual attendance — a headcount but not unique visitors — was 116,000, the director continued. He added that about 13,000 people used computers at the library in Sherwood last year.

Jacksonville’s Nixon Library, which opened in a new building a few years ago, had a circulation of 221,000 and an attendance of 162,000 in 2013, Roberts said. Its computer usage was 38,000.

In 2009, the year the new Jacksonville library opened, the branch saw a 25 percent increase in attendance, an 18 percent increase in the circulation of print materials and a 27 percent increase in the circulation of non-print materials.

Both types of circulation at the Amy Sanders Library experienced growth of just 7 percent that year, Roberts said.

Since 2009, attendance at the Sherwood branch has declined by 25,000 and the overall circulation has increased by 12,382, according to the director.

Roberts said the Amy Sanders Library, like most CALS branches, is still growing. But its growth pales in comparison to the new library in Jacksonville and other branches, he explained.

The director argued that a new library is needed because the library in Sherwood, which was a flagship facility for the system when he was hired, is outdated.

Roberts said, even though the branch’s programs are well attended, its building is too small to meet the demands of a growing community.

He speculated that the programs, most of them focused on kids, would become even larger if library personnel had more space to host them in.

Mayoral candidate Don Berry said Roberts recently contacted the city council to get their input on how to market a millage increase for the library.

Berry pointed out that marketing it should have been done before now. “It’s putting the cart before the horse…It’s a process issue,” he said.

The trouble supporters are going to have now is that what voters know best is how much the library will cost — $6 million, Berry continued.

He explained that they don’t know what is being purchased.

Berry said in an earlier interview with The Leader that the city’s golf course didn’t cost $6 million and that Cabot just broke ground on a $5.3 million sports complex.

“With those two acquisitions in mind, it may be hard for some Sherwood citizens to fathom how a library could cost more,” the candidate said previously.

He is not against the project if it is determined that voters want a new library. Berry signed the petition for the vote so that they could have their say.

There is value to a new library “if it makes Sherwood a destination,” he said Thursday.

Berry also noted that this is very similar to a sales tax that Mayor Virginia Hillman proposed in 2011 to raise money for a library, animal shelter and street improvements.

Her proposal then also didn’t outline what voters would have bought if it had passed, Berry said. He added that Alderman Tim McMinn led the charge to both table the sales tax and, recently, to place the millage vote on the general election ballot rather than set a special election. Petitioners requested that a special election on the issue be held in August.

The CALS director told the council before it changed the date that a special election was more likely to be successful. Mayor Virginia Hillman said the general election would delay collections and construction until January 2016.

She said more space and parking is needed at the library, especially because it has great children’s programming.

“It’s so important to capture those children at that age. It’s a quality of life issue for our community,” Hillman said.

The mayor said seniors and young families in Sherwood have voiced their support for the project. “In all seasons of life, a library has benefits,” Hillman noted.

She argued that the library needs to expand for technology so that everyone can have access to that. The mayor also pointed out that the library saves residents money as they can rent out entertainment in the form of books or DVDs as well as enjoy the free programming.

Hillman’s vision is a family-themed facility with an outdoor space that would attract people to live in Sherwood.

Mayoral candidate Doris Anderson believes that building a new library isn’t the best way for Sherwood to provide more space for the branch’s programs.

She suggested the library programs be held in other city facilities, like the city council chambers, Bill Harmon Recreation Center, Jack Evans Senior Citizens Center, the Greens at North Hills and Sherwood Forest, when they are available.

And there may be a more efficient way to use the current building, like putting computer monitors on the walls, Anderson said.

She also said, “I am not for any new property taxes. I don’t think they are the way to do this. The city has enough money. They need to budget accordingly, spend wisely and look at departments and areas where they are losing money.”

But, “If citizens choose to tax themselves, that’s their choice,” Anderson continued.

She suggested officials look at alternative funding sources – volunteers, donations, etc. — to build the library or first consider needs like constructing a new city hall, safe room or fire station on Brockington Road.

“I think we need to look at the big picture, not just a corner of the big picture,” Anderson said.

The candidate didn’t agree with the law requiring signatures from just 100 residents — not the 15 percent of registered voters other petitions need — for a petition to hold the millage vote for a new library.

Anderson also questioned the petitioners’ request to hold a special election. The candidate asked, “What was the urgency…Have they already made commitments? There is no emergency on the library.”

Anderson also questioned why only 20 people showed up to the only meeting petitioners held on the issue. She said, “The lack of attendance sometimes says as much as the attendance.”

But city mother Amy Sanders agrees with the mayor. She told The Leader that her namesake is well used and a replacement is needed to accommodate those who visit it.

“We desperately need a new library. We have outgrown this one, especially with the children,” Sanders said. “There is so much activity at the library. People use it so much...It’s just outdated in every way, and it cannot be added onto.”

There also isn’t enough parking at the current library, she said.

Sanders said paying the tax would cost about what a family spends going to the movies.

But, “The library you could use over and over again,” Sanders argued.

She said, “It would certainly be an asset for Sherwood” as people looking at moving there would take the library into consideration.