July/ August 2011, Volume 3, Issue 7
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Indian Education Summit
SDLA Annual Conference
SD Festival of Books
AASL National Conference
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Board Talk: That difficult subject – nonresident user fees
By Daria Bossman, Asst. State Librarian for Development Services
Do you serve folks in your broader community who do not pay property taxes and thus do not support the public library they use? If so, you might want to rethink your position on not charging a user’s fee for nonresidents who do not support the library with their tax dollars. This fee would be in lieu of taxes, not an additional tax. Every public library should have a policy in place which protects your tax-paying citizens. It should be a written board approved policy with a reasonable fee put in place and reevaluated every couple of years.
Even a minimal fee still makes the point that library services are not really “free” in the sense that someone has to pick up the tab. In the era of Benjamin Franklin the term “free library” began to be bantered about. In the 18th and early 19th century, libraries in America were private affairs. Rich and well-educated folks spent their lives investing in a personal “library” collection which they often opened up to friends and acquaintances. Libraries also were the purview of universities, but not of municipalities. Again, enrollment in those colleges meant access with tuition dollars paying for the right to use such shared collections. But no such resources were available for the masses. In our young democratic country the cry went up that “everyone was equal” and had the rights of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” Self-education became one of the hall-mark values of our emerging, uniquely American culture. The push for free libraries (“free” meant open access and publically funded) began to emerge in many a large and small city. Thus the title, the Philadelphia Free Public Library, still remains to this day. Today, we sometimes take our publically funded “free” public libraries for granted, assuming they are “free” to operate when in reality, that word means more closely, “accessible for all.”
The shared responsibility of financially supporting the operations of a library—utilities, building, technology, materials, resources, databases, books, magazines, games, staffing, etc. is a shared burden by the citizens of a specific locale. Each community determines the extent to which they will or will not fund a public library. In the US, public libraries have evolved into a uniquely local institution.
A fee policy accomplishes several important things:
- It opens up the library to users beyond the limitations of the community tax base,
- It increases the value of the public library,
- It creates public awareness that it is a publically funded service and not “free” in the sense that it takes money to keep a library open and operational,
- It wards against user abuse or misunderstandings,
- Such a policy protects tax payers, who have a financial and emotional vested interest in that particular library,
- It reimburses the library for resources and services used by nonresidents, and
- It legally protects the library board.
Average cost of doing business
Over a third of all SD public libraries now have an annual user's fee in place. They range from minimal amounts like $5.00 per person to $65.00 or more per year per family. Watertown Regional’s non-resident fee is actually adjusted annually to mirror the city’s per capita tax support for the library.
The average per capita expense for communities providing public library service in the state of SD in 2008 was $27.83; in 2009 it had risen to $28.29. Nationally it was $36.36 in 2008. You can figure out how much each citizen pays for library services by taking your most recent total annual library expenditures and divide that sum by the total number of citizens in your city (or county if you have a county system). That will give you the actual amount your library needs in tax support from each local citizen to operate at your current level. It is always interesting to realize and know what that figure is. This gives us a new appreciation for each local tax-paying citizen’s contribution and for the local library services provided. No one profession, outside of educators perhaps, stretches a dollar better than a librarian.
I would recommend an annual nonresident (non-tax paying) user's fee of at least $25.00 per person (that is just over $2.00 per month) or $50.00 per family in rural areas and more in metropolitan areas where increased hours and the services and resources are more plentiful. However, with increased usage of computers, technology and access to electronic resources, that “difference” in demand is lessening with each year.
You may want to think of this similar situation — your school district accepts students into their school through a program called open enrollment. However, no local school would allow a non-resident student into their school without funding (tax dollars) coming with that student to help support his or her education. Library boards have a responsibility to promote the library and provide for the adequate provision of the up-keep and funding of the library’s operations. This includes making sure that the public library is not inappropriately drained of resources at the expense of its local citizens being served first and foremost.
One SD exception
There are some unique circumstances within SD and these circumstances affect how your library might define “nonresident.” Certainly with county library systems a nonresident would be defined as living outside the boundaries of that county. In a countywide system the county board of supervisors is the direct boss of the library board and they provide the bulk of the funding for the library system whether there is one main library and several branches or just one library within that county. We do have in the Black Hills a number of counties which have chosen to liberally fund the municipal libraries within their counties. However, the libraries continue to be independent and their authority to exist still resides with the local municipalities. In these situations, a town library may elect to have a nonresident fee policy, but to define a nonresident as someone living not outside their town, but living outside the county lines.
Something to think about
The important thing to take away is that it is vital for each library board to write, approve and have in place a user’s policy and more specifically, a nonresident (however you define it) user’s fee policy. Even if you chose to not charge anyone living beyond your defined boundaries, it is a very wise practice to have a written policy stating why you do not charge nonresidents (non-tax payers) for library usage. One example would be where the municipal library receives from the county supervisors a healthy contribution of county funds to its annual budget. Regardless of your circumstances such policies could protect the library board from potential lawsuits by disgruntled tax-paying citizens.
If you or your board has questions, please don't hesitate to give me a call, 605-773-3131 or 1-800-423-6665.