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Guest column: Michigan's libraries, learners will lose if tax funds aren't replaced

By Lance Werner/Kent District Library

Libraries and other organizations such as schools, police, and fire departments that provide essential tax-supported services have been working with state lawmakers for nearly a year to brainstorm ways to replace the business equipment personal property tax (PPT), if it is eliminated

Replacement is critical because, without it, the services Kent County residents rely on will be at the very least irreparably damaged, and, in some cases, may cease entirely. Kent District Library applauded state senators who recognized the value and necessity of our services, and were heartened that a provision guaranteeing replacement funding was included in a Senate measure that passed on May 10. While this solution is far from perfect, it is better than nothing. The provision provides that if a future Legislature fails to restore revenue lost by elimination of the PPT, the PPT will be restored.

But wait. Now there are rumblings that the Michigan House of Representatives may remove this critical provision, which has the potential to devastate essential local services, including KDL’s voter-approved tax funding and the services we offer to nearly 250,000 people throughout Kent County. It also would mean the year of negotiations between the Senate and local service agencies was meaningless.

We agree the PPT is not a wise tax. Why penalize businesses for trying to grow? But the services it funds -- municipalities, schools and, of course, libraries -- are anything but unwise. These are the entities voters have said again and again are worthy of their tax dollars. These are services that keep property values steady and growing (and thus communities vibrant) and convince businesses and people to move in and to stay.

I can say with absolute confidence that Michigan’s libraries do not take advantage of voters’ generosity. Libraries in Michigan saw state aid decrease in 2011 to a funding level well below the 1977 rate, when the State Aid to Public Libraries Act was approved. In 1977, state aid worked out to 35 cents per capita, which equates to $1.30 per capita in 2011 dollars. In 2011, public libraries received just 19 cents per capita. This is the level of de-funding you think of when organizations say they have cut expenses to the bone.  

Despite such cuts, we are offering programs and materials that keep libraries more vital than ever in people’s lives. KDL cardholders number nearly 250,000 -- and that’s just our library system. In April, more than 1,000 new people signed up for a library card; in February, the applications exceeded 3,000.

Our early childhood literacy programs have become musts for Kent County parents and educators. Our computer and job skills course offerings are often filled to capacity, which is notable since Gov. Rick Snyder was quoted in a news article early this year recommending that people have greater access to public library resources for their job searches.

At KDL, the PPT accounts for approximately 9.1 percent of our operating budget. While this is a significant amount, it pales in comparison to the losses that will be experienced by other public libraries in the state. If the PPT is not replaced, the cuts will go into the bone. Libraries will be forced -- against voters’ wishes -- to stop offering services that the public requested. Another possible repercussion will be a tax increase on homeowners to pay for the services residents have come to expect.

Your state’s public libraries are not asking for more money; we are asking that we be able to continue to provide the services we agreed to provide, with the funding voters approved.

Lawmakers, I and these other voices ask you to please follow through on your good-faith promises regarding replacement of the PPT. Library supporters, please tell your legislators your thoughts on losing services that you voted for.

Bridge welcomes guest columns from a diverse range of people on issues relating to Michigan and its future. The views and assertions of these writers do not necessarily reflect those of Bridge or The Center for Michigan. Bridge does not endorse any individual guest commentary submission. If you are interested in submitting a guest commentary, please contact Ron French. Click here for details and submission guidelines.

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