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Government, Politics & Issues

Arguments on library tax increase proposal don't all go by the book

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Oct. 18, 2012 - Voters trying to decide whether to back St. Louis County Library’s request for a 6-cent property tax increase -- Proposition L -- might welcome some of the explorer skills of Lewis and Clark to figure out what might happen to the library branch that bears their name.

In the official master facilities plan adopted by the library board, part of the proceeds from the increase on the Nov. 6 ballot would go toward tearing down the north county building and building a new library on the same site at 9909 Lewis & Clark Blvd.

But a presentation on Prop L being made to public groups says that library will be renovated, not razed.

Preservationists say the building is a good example of architecture from the mid-‘60s period and deserves to be spared the wrecking ball. But people who live in the area served by the branch say they deserve a brand-new building just like other parts of the county are slated to get.

Library officials say they want to remain flexible, and the fate of that branch won’t be decided until after Election Day.

And though about 70 percent of the estimated $11 million money raised by the tax increase would go toward capital projects, the ballot issue – Proposition L  -- is not a bond issue because that would require a larger majority, four-sevenths, than the simple majority that a tax increase needs.

Charles Pace, director of the county library system, points out that it has not had a tax proposal on the ballot since 1983; even then, voters were asked not to raise taxes but to keep a 5-cent levy that was set to expire.

He says that by asking for approval of a tax increase, not a bond issue, the library will have more flexibility in how the revenue may be used. For the same reason, he told the Beacon, final details on which branches will be renovated and which will be replaced won’t be determined until after the election results are in.

“I think the plan is as definitive as it can be at this point,” Pace said. “There will have to be a detailed engineering and design process for each project. But in order to try to come up with a definitive plan that nails down precisely what is going to happen at each and every location, we would have to do design work and an engineering study, and it’s just not cost effective to go into that kind of detail.

“And it would be irresponsible to try to lock ourselves into something so rigid without having the opportunity to change it. But the plan is the plan, and I feel very confident that the vast majority will play out as it is.”

Preservationists aren’t all happy with the lack of details or with the plans to raze Lewis and Clark. They note it was designed by Frederick Dunn, with stained glass windows of the trailblazing explorers for whom it was named, plus their guide, Sacagawea.

Esley Hamilton, preservation historian for the St. Louis County parks, doesn’t expect a change of heart because of what he termed a “throwaway mentality so deeply embedded in the administration” of the library.

Noting a newly found appreciation for mid-20th century architecture, he said that in his mind, “I just feel that a library is responsible for preserving the culture, and that includes the building.”

What Proposition L says

With 20 branches serving 1 million residents, the St. Louis County library system is the busiest in Missouri. Last year, it checked out a record 12 million items, and it is shooting for 14 million this year. It boasts that the 5.7 million visits to its system total more than the attendance for all St. Louis professional sports teams combined.

Its current tax levy of 16.3 cents for each $100 of assessed valuation is among the lowest in the area, a distinction it would retain even with six cents tacked on. On a $200,000 home, the library says, the increase would cost an extra $23 a year. Proceeds from the tax hike would go toward operations and buildings.

On the operations side, if the library must continue operating on its current budget of $37.5 million a year, it says it would have to eliminate bookmobiles for schools, seniors and community centers; curb its purchases of books and other materials such as DVDs; and perhaps cut personnel and the hours that branches are open.

On the capital side, the facilities master plan calls for new construction at headquarters, Lewis and Clark, Tesson Ferry, Meramec Valley, Mid-County and Thornhill. Other facilities would get renovations, additions or upgrades.

Included in those changes would be better services for children and teens; more seating, such as quiet spaces for individuals and small groups; improved reference resources; flexible meeting spaces for community groups; training in new technologies; and an improved system for handling materials to meet patrons’ requests more efficiently.

Not everyone in St. Louis County will be voting on Proposition L. It will not be on the ballot in communities that are served by their own libraries: Brentwood, Ferguson, Kirkwood, Maplewood, Richmond Heights, Rock Hill, University City, Valley Park and Webster Groves.

Read more about the tax campaign here.

'Buildings exist for people'

Pace anticipates the campaign for the tax increase will end up costing between $400,000 and $450,000, with the money coming from Civic Progress, labor unions, the construction industry, private individuals and others. He knows of no organized opposition to the proposal.

Asked why the library decided to seek voter approval for a tax increase instead of a bond issue, Pace said the reasons go beyond the easier majority required.

“You have more flexibility with a general levy increase,” he said, “whereas with general obligation bonds you are tied into specific projects. Also, part of the reason people go for general obligation bonds is that they have low interest rates, but rates are so low anyway that there’s not that much of a difference.”

He understands and appreciates concern about preserving noteworthy architecture, such as the arguments about Lewis and Clark, but he also wants to make sure that the library’s facilities are serving its growing public audience.

“People don’t exist for buildings,” he said. “Buildings exist for people. Our goal is that whatever facility we have there is the best one to meet the needs for people in the 21st century.”

Even though the library’s audience is increasingly using electronic media, Pace said the need for increased, upgraded physical space remains for community groups, students and others who find the library to be a no-cost resource in tough economic times.

“E-media has been growing very rapidly,” he said, “but it is still a small percentage of overall circulation. Also, there are a lot of barriers that publishing companies throw up for libraries in terms of e-media.

“As far as buildings, our experience has been that usage has been increasing steadily. We have had more people coming to our buildings and we also function as a community center, with programs and events. Most of the buildings we have now were built in the ’60s or ‘70s and have inflexibilities built into them. We want to have libraries that are open and useful in the 21st century.”

The library has moved increasingly to self-service in terms of checkout and requested items, a trend that Pace said has allowed the system to reduce personnel by about 7 percent, primarily through attrition.

But, he added, “the real impetus for self-service is to allow staff to be on the floor more and provide customer service. At the same time we are looking for as much efficiency as possible to make the best use of the dollars that we have.”

What opponents say

Among the most vocal critics of Proposition L are members of the St. Louis County Historic Buildings Commission. They recently approved a letter signed by Chairman Jane Gleason (and submitted to the Post-Dispatch) that attempts to rebut points made by Pace in favor of the tax increase.

In terms of the buildings, the letter said that those in favor of the proposal “have conceded that the architectural quality of the 1963 [Lewis and Clark] library was not considered in their planning. But they say it lacks sufficient space and is ‘showing its age.’ Aren’t we all.”

By contrast, the letter noted how the city library system has enlarged and modernized its Carondelet branch and restored its downtown headquarters, buildings that “are twice as old as any on the county’s hit list.”

The difference in the two library systems’ attitudes, the letter added, is this: “Many people see libraries as protecting the highest achievements of our culture and making them accessible to the widest public. Mr Pace sees the role of the County Library as catering only to popular trends.”

It said that since Pace became director in 2006, the number of titles the library system owns has been cut nearly in half, with the system discarding many books that had not been in demand and adding more DVDs and other electronic materials. “As the county policies play out,” the letter added, “books and buildings are disposables to be used and discarded, chewing gum for the mind.”

It concluded:

“Voters can pass the tax increase and take their chances that the library administration and its consultants will change their minds about these architecturally valuable buildings. But understanding how deeply embedded the throw-away philosophy is in the current library administration, that seems unlikely.”

Pace counters that while the number of titles has been cut – and, he said, many classic books have been acquired in paperback form – the ultimate yardstick is circulation, which is at a record level. “In my mind,” he said, “it’s not the number of titles we have, it’s how well the collection is being used and how well we are serving the community.”

He also noted that patrons may use the interlibrary loan service to get material that the county library does not have in its collection.

On the question of Lewis and Clark, the battle lines have been portrayed as preservationists on one side, users of the branch on the other.

Michael Allen, a local architectural historian, says he is not campaigning against Proposition L, but he wants to raise awareness of the possibility that proceeds from the tax increase may go toward knocking down what he called “one of the county’s most significant public buildings. Our mission has always been to spare that building, not try to defeat the proposition.”

He also noted that some people who are joining him in that effort live in the area near the branch library and would like to see it preserved.

Others see the preservationists as outsiders trying to influence what is essentially a community decision.

State Rep. Tommie Pierson, a Democrat who represents the area where the Lewis and Clark branch is located, told the Beacon:

“I think the people who live in the neighborhood deserve a new, state-of-the-art library and should not be dictated to by somebody who doesn’t live in the neighborhood. That should be totally up to the residents.

“What I’m concerned about is the students who use the library, and the adults as well. They pay taxes like everybody else.”

While talks have been held on the possibility that the current building could remain intact, bought by outside interests, and a new library could be build nearby, for now the plan remains to raze it and replace it. Pace put it this way:

“Our primary concern is for the people in that community who would use that facility. If those individuals tell us they want a new library, that is what we will try to give them.”

At a recent meeting, the St. Louis County Republican Central Committee voted to oppose the library tax hike. Chairman Bruce Buwalda said, "we felt uneasy about increasing taxes when incomes are dropping and so many people are out of work."

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