Library to stay open, but future unwritten

Library to stay open, but future unwritten

Tax district would help

By Lara Patangan
Resident Community News

Now that the chapter on library closings has been written for fiscal year 2014, advocates of the straw ballot initiative hope that the story for Jacksonville Public Libraries takes a new twist by moving forward to become an independent tax district.

Originally six City libraries were slated to close, including the neighborhood branches of Willowbranch and San Marco, in order to comply with Mayor Alvin Brown’s proposed budget.
Last month, the City Council Finance Committee agreed to reverse some of the proposed funding cuts, sparing all six libraries from an unhappy ending.
District 5 Councilwoman Lori Boyer said she has gotten some pushback about the increase in the millage rate that made it possible for branches to be spared, but that many neighborhood residents are pleased with the outcome. “I have gotten a lot of people saying ‘thank you for supporting it and keeping services up,’” Boyer explained.
Budget cuts have occurred annually since 2005 and advocates say it’s taking its toll on neighborhood libraries already impacted by full-day closures, reduced hours and a diminishing materials budget.

One long-term solution to preserve Jacksonville libraries is to designate them as independent tax districts, funded by a property tax of no more than one mill which could only be spent on libraries. According to Bill Brinton, co-founder of Save Our Public Libraries, Inc., the library professionals believe this would be sufficient to ensure a quality library system.  The annual millage between 0 and 1 would be set by five elected officials under this proposed district which is similar to successful independent districts in Alachua County and Orange County, Florida.

Save Our Public Libraries is spearheading the campaign to collect petitions that would let voters decide through a straw ballot initiative whether they want the opportunity to consider the independent tax district for local libraries.
“While the San Marco Branch Library and several other branch libraries have escaped total closure this year, there is still an ongoing degradation of the overall system with more cuts added on to the cuts from the year before, and the year before that, and the year before that,” said Brinton. “The library straw ballot petition campaign is critical to our future, and we need to transition to an independent library district soon.”

Efforts are ongoing to collect the 26,000 signatures needed to get the proposal on the 2014 ballot. To date, 19,862 petitions have been accepted by the Supervisor of Elections Office. The campaign has the support of the governing boards of Friends of the Jacksonville Public Library, Inc. and Jacksonville Libraries Foundation, Inc.
Helene Kamps-Stewart, a Murray Hill resident who volunteers for Save Our Public Libraries, thinks this year’s budget is a temporary fix.

“This is just a Band-Aid. Each year we are faced with these budget cuts,” Kamps-Stewart explained. “The libraries are such a complicated department for the city. It keeps getting cut and rearranged through the political world, and the trustees are never allowed to make pro-active long-term decisions.”

She thinks the structure of the independent library district allows for long-range planning and “keeps monies from being raided by other arms of the government.” Kamps-Stewart believes libraries are an integral part of the fabric of a historical neighborhood.

While the history of city libraries began in 1878 with the Jacksonville Library and Literary Association which was successful in creating a free public reading room, it wasn’t until 1927 that the city got its first branch, the Wilder Park Library on the corner of Lee and Third Streets.

Before that, there was only the main library which was located on Adams Street until it was destroyed by the Great Fire of 1901. Andrew Carnegie offered $50,000 to rebuild the library if the city would pledge at least $5,000 a year for its support. It narrowly passed a citywide referendum and in 1905, the library known officially as the Jacksonville Free Public Library opened as the first tax-supported library in Florida.

Over the years, 16 branches have grown from the Main Library to make up our current library system.

Suzanne Broadhurst, a Murray Hill Resident who relied on the Willowbranch Library to homeschool her two children believes in the importance of branch libraries.
“It’s really been through my neighborhood library and its librarians that I found a sense of community here,” said Broadhurst. “I could not have done it (homeschool) as well as I did without the library. They watched my kids grow up. I am so thrilled the libraries are still there and I hope that continues.”

San Marco author and resident Bud Baker feels so grateful for his neighborhood library that he hosted a book signing there last month donating proceeds from the sales of his book to the San Marco branch.

Pam Thompson, senior librarian for the San Marco branch, said that because of the libraries financial situation they do not have Baker’s book, “The Earthling/Alien Chatroom,” in their collection, but she is grateful for his support. “It’s such a generous offer. He’s a really good writer,” Thompson said.

Baker relied on the San Marco branch to do research for his book. “Libraries are such a trove of treasure. Of all the places to cut, libraries are so cool,” said Baker. “The difference between humans and nature is that we have the ability to tell stories.”

The story on the funding of Jacksonville libraries is onto another chapter. Citing again the need for the independent district, Kamps-Stewart said “the entire unpredictability of it all is the problem.  Onward we march with our petition gathering!”

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