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The Journal Gazette

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Friday, August 10, 2018 1:00 am

Community resource

Tax investment in libraries brings payoff beyond proportion

Greta Southard

Greta Southard is director of Allen County Public Library.

Recently, an article circulated that posed an interesting argument: Amazon should and could replace libraries, thus saving taxpayers money. The article managed to generate quite a bit of conversation, especially among library professionals. However, I have to wonder whether its author has visited a public library recently. If not, he should, because he would find that public libraries can't be so easily replaced.

Libraries still house books and other materials. Last year alone, customers of the Allen County Public Library checked out 4.7 million items. In addition to books, though, we offer so much more to the community at large. Our staff and leadership realize that to stay vibrant and relevant to the community we serve, it is necessary to grow beyond what a library has historically looked like and offered.

Our 14 locations across Allen County have become gathering places for community groups and individuals alike. In 2017, 2.3 million people visited one of our library locations. With more than 21,000 free programs at all ACPL locations last year, we aim to serve customers of all ages and interests.

In addition to providing interesting and informative programs, we meet other needs of our customers.

During the summer months, six of our library branches partner with Fort Wayne Community Schools and the Foellinger Foundation to provide free lunches to children.

Our customers might not need as many computer stations as they once did. However, there is still a strong need for access to data. Our customers logged onto ACPL Wi-Fi 1.9 million times in 2017.

Individuals who are trying to start or grow a business have traditionally come to the library for assistance and resources. Now our staff have additional tools to help those customers. The library is partnering with the Northeast Indiana Innovation Center to meet the needs of entrepreneurs in our community. In addition to the many resources the library can offer, we can also connect entrepreneurs with members of the Innovation Center staff who hold office hours at our main library two days a week.

The library also encourages economic growth in another unique way. ACPL's Genealogy Center is one of the country's largest family history centers and has gained a national reputation for excellence. According to Visit Fort Wayne's data, 65,000 people visit the library's Genealogy Center every year. Visitors from out of town, as well as regional and national genealogy conventions, result in revenue for local businesses.

I don't provide all of this information simply to brag. (I do, however, hope that Allen County residents are extremely proud of their library system.) Instead, I offer it to provide a snapshot of everything that is at stake if City Councilman Jason Arp's tax proposal were to pass.

If fully implemented, Arp's repeal of the business personal property tax would cost the Allen County Public Library $3.9 million dollars a year. It would also negatively affect many of the other entities with whom we partner, including the school systems.

Arp argues that the lost revenue will eventually be regained as existing tax incentives expire over the next 15 years. That is little consolation, as the damage would be both immediate and long term. If the library lost current funding, it would mean changing how we do business.

What might those changes look like to library customers? Or, as City Council calls them, voters?

Unfortunately, the consequences are easy to put into understandable terms. Arp's proposal could result in three possible outcomes.

1. The loss of revenue would eliminate most of ACPL's annual budget for purchasing materials. That begs the question, how do you operate a vibrant, vital library without being able to refresh and update the collection?

2. The amount of lost revenue represents the combined operating budget of almost all departments of our main library downtown. This includes children's services, the Genealogy Center and so much more. It would effectively cripple our ability to keep the main library open and operating.

3. The $3.9 million is the equivalent of the combined operating cost of every single branch location throughout the county. From Aboite to Tecumseh, Dupont to Woodburn, we would be without the necessary funding to keep our 13 neighborhood branches open.

So how do we choose? Do we cut books, close the main library or shut down the 13 branch locations?

This is more than a dollars-and-cents situation. It is ultimately a question of the type of community we believe ourselves to be, and what we want to become. I tip my hat to the late Walter Cronkite, who said: “Whatever the cost of our libraries, the price is cheap compared to that of an ignorant nation.”

While I appreciate Cronkite's sentiment, the fact is that we at the Allen County Public Library realize we have been entrusted with the taxpayers' hard-earned dollars. And we work to be good stewards of that money and use it in a way that benefits the entire community.

This area's residents have a long history of being incredibly supportive of our library system. I just can't believe that crippling the library's ability to serve the public is the outcome they're looking for out of Arp's proposal.