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.

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Tue, 06/05/2012 - 9:10am
Maybe its time to reevaluate the library program. With the widespread availability of the internet, Kindles and other electronic readers, the need for hard copy books is shrinking. Virtual libraries are in our future and the vision should be how do we get there, not how do we fund an antiquated system. Maybe the solution is to use high school libraries year round, open to the public and eliminate the cost of maintaining duplicate buildings. If any book you are interested in can be loaded on an electronic reader, the library is just a quiet expense that has lost its need. As always, the people with personal gain are the ones most interested in sustaining the system.
Larry Neal
Tue, 06/05/2012 - 9:33am
Libraries are constantly re-evaluating services based on the needs of the communities they serve. Many people who use libraries cannot afford the steep costs of broadband. When someone has lost his/her job, the first place the state sends them is to the library to file for unemployment. On a daily basis we see people come through our doors who have never had to apply for a job online. Libraries serve people from cradle to grave. Preschoolers still need to learn socialization skills and become prepared to read when they start Kindergarten. They can't do that sitting in a corner with an iPad. Students and many other community groups use the library to meet, collaborate and work on a variety of projects and issues. It doesn't make any sense to keep a large school building open for the purpose of using one room which is targeted for a small segment of the population. If you rely on the commercially-based open Internet for research as opposed to the premium content, quality subscription-based reliable information provided through libraries you are taking a big gamble. And it's a myth that all books are now available in ebook format, and you'll never begin to touch the selection of MILLIONS of titles available through your local library and the partnerships between libraries throughout the state. Last, are you prepared to pay for every title on that ereader because the publishers don't give them away for free? Although you'll call my views self serving, I challenge anyone who would write "just a quet expense that has lost its need" to visit your local public library and find out what's available and who is using it before you just brush it off as some unessential antiquity.
Tue, 06/05/2012 - 10:09am
I have no personal gain in sustaining libraries unless it is to create and sustain an educated, well-informed population and the help people obtain access to information. Libraries are more than hard-copy books, although if that was all they were about, their funding would still be justified. I teach college classes and am continually amazed and disappointed at how little college-student know and understand about data and valid sources. "It is on Google, so it must be true," is a fallacy that is dispelled by librarians. Librarians will and do show people how to search (searching for data is far more than just, "googling it") and help people access relevant information quickly & efficiently. Libraries are community meeting places, provide computer & information access to those who cannot afford computers at home (and there are MANY people who don't), help with job searching on the computer, provide free entertianment with, yes, hard copy books, DVD's, childrens' programs, etc. . There is so much more. Communities who kill library funding restrict information access to only those who can afford expensive e-readers and home computers.
Ashten Marie
Tue, 06/05/2012 - 11:12am
You are absolutely right that the future has a wide lens that includes the internet, Kindles, and e-readers. If you go to Kent District Library's website at you will find that with one library card you can download music, attend classes on how to use your new devices, and even check e-books out. All for FREE. Now that people are using the internet more, you can also use the internet for free AND print for only 15 cents per copy as well. With 18 convienent locations the library houses a plethora of databases that can give you free access to your favorite magazines, recommends a similar author, and more. WIth the evolution of people and their digital tools comes the evolution of the library too. But how can they change to meet your needs further if you take away funding? Though it might look like just books when you walk through the doors, you'll quickly find that's definitely not all they have. And what's more, they've got events for all ages -- bringing the community together to learn, grow, get ideas, and be inspired. Check it out! :)
Tue, 06/05/2012 - 11:15am
According to the Pew Research Center's study published this April, only 21% of Americans use eReaders. You can look at the report here: existence and availability of eBooks does not negate the purpose and prominence of the library. As others have commented (and as the body of the article points out) there is a diverse offering of services made by the Kent District Library. And these services are being used more and more as we enter into a more technologically-driven age. On any given day that I go into the library at any given time, they are busy. It can be 10am on a Saturday or 7pm on a Thursday--the place is hopping. Large numbers of people take advantage of the services, materials, programs, classes, internet access, staff expertise, environment, and facilities on a daily basis. Cutting back on the library makes no sense, as it is being widely utilized and with high-quality results.
Tue, 06/05/2012 - 11:16am
In response to the idea of using high school libraries as a replacement for public libraries, I would like to point out that due to budget cuts in Michigan, most schools have cut or extremely limited funding to their libraries. In turn, the local high school library does not have the financial ability to provide access to expensive, high-quality databases and other research materials. Most of schools do not have educated professionals available to help students do their research. Rather, students are sent to the local public library for these indispensable resources.
Tue, 06/05/2012 - 1:59pm
"If any book you are interested in can be loaded on an electronic reader". In addition to the other points made, this statement of yours is simply untrue. E-books are very well used and popular, but there are still many "backlist" titles not available in that format.
Phil Anderson
Tue, 06/05/2012 - 9:44am
Overlooked is the great need for Internet access and computer access which libraries fulfil. Not everyone can afford an e-reader, a computer, Internet access. Many unemployed/underemployed use library access to search for jobs. Are you aware that some publishers refuse to sell their titles to public libraries? Are you also aware that some publishers have encoding in their electronic editions that allow only a pre-set number of circulations before title must be purchased again by the library? Modern technology is great - I wouldn't want to give up my devices - but at this time we need libraries with BOTH technologies.
Tue, 06/05/2012 - 9:52am
It is easy today for everyone to assume we do not need libraries because “everything is virtual now.” The antiquated system you want to eliminate would also destroy access to a mountain of information you would have great difficulty getting to or having to pay a lot for. People who believe we no longer need libraries obviously have not gone into today’s library and found out that access to valuable and useful information is what libraries have always provided and continue to protect for every citizen in a free society. By the way, why do we have art museums and orchestras, after all isn’t that all virtual too?
Tue, 06/05/2012 - 10:07am
A reply to Hardvark’s comments: 1) I am amazed, astonished, appalled by how widespread the internet isn't in Michigan. Our state has not made enough investment in information technology infrastructure. I have recently declined to purchase a home in desirable, convenient areas where I could not buy internet service at any price. There are a huge number of Michigan residents for whom their local public library is their only access for internet. 2) Public libraries are virtual libraries. With your public library card, you can access eBooks, eAudiobooks, full-text references, online magazines, downloadable music, and chat reference assistance with an information professional--all from your favorite wireless hotspot. The restrictions on material availability are either publisher-imposed or budget-driven. Public libraries have been at the forefront of virtual service for more than a decade. 3) Have you been in a high school library recently? Most of them are nearly abandoned by the school districts with no new books or reference databases and no staff. Students use their local public library to download articles and complete school projects online. 4) Use of public library service is booming. There is nothing antiquated about early literacy programs which make children better students or computer classes filled with senior citizens. 5) As for a vested interest? Yes. I confess. I am a librarian. I am fortunate to have full-time, professional employment. I think we’ve all seen what happens when jobs like mine vanish. Michigan needs more full-time professional positions, not less.
Lance Werner
Tue, 06/05/2012 - 10:16am
Hardvark- Thanks for your comments, and I hear your concerns. Those of us who work in the non-profit world must always be ready to account for how we use public funds. The notion that libraries are no longer relevant simply is not supported by the enormous increase in library use, particularly as our economy has struggled. The governor even recognizes this. In 2011 we circulated 6.8 million items, which is 500,000 more than in 2010. In 2010 our patrons used our computers to access the Internet for more than 560,000 hours, the equivalent of nearly 64 years. KDL’s eBook circulation is up over 400 percent since this time last year. Libraries and librarians are knowledge brokers in an information age and economy, and our work to meet the challenge of constantly-evolving technology has proven our vision, and our willingness to meet the demands of our patrons. Libraries transform lives, and that’s not just saying something pretty. Our mission has and always will be to provide services to everyone, even those who cannot afford Internet access, eReader devices or the next must-have technology.
Tue, 06/05/2012 - 10:55am
We recently presented another set of objectively derived and scientifically projectible findings for an Attitude, Awareness and Usage study for a Library outside of Detroit. Among other results a full 15% of the community reported not having Internet access and/or a personal computer. The notion that Libraries provide unnecessary services like high speed internet and computers to a public that doesn't need them is simply wrong. Consistently, we see Library usage going up...from computers and internet to book/cd and Dvd circulation. In a challenged economy the Library serves as a vital information and job assistance safety net as well as continuing to be an essential tool for educating children and getting them to be excited about reading and information. In the knowledge economy Libraries will be more valuable, not less as patrons come to realize much of what lies on the Internet is beyond the capabilities of a simple Google search. Whether through proprietary databases...which public libraries have that the public can access only through a public library or via the ability to find whats buried beneath the layers that expert Library researchers can dig out the Library is an even more valuable tool today than when Benjamin Franklin introduced it in the late 1700s.
Charles Richards
Tue, 06/05/2012 - 1:35pm
It is amazing how poorly informed Mr Werner is. First of all, according to a recent Detroit Free Press editorial, 81% of the personal property tax would be replaced by expiring tax credits. The reamaining 19% of cuts would be phased in over ten years. Second, he should be aware that the provision to cancel elimination of the PPT if it is not replaced is meaningless. Numerous state and federal court decisions have established that one legislature cannot bind successor legislatures. Third, he should be aware that of Great Lake states that have eliminated the PPT and guaranteed its replacement, only Illinois has kept its word. The same Free Press editorial advocated a simple and elegant solution to the PPT problem that has not received the discussion it deserved. Instead of eliminating the PPT and replacing it with expiring tax credits, the editorial called for keeping the PPT, but allowing corporations to deduct it from their state income tax and replacing the state's loss with the expiring tax credits.
Chuck Fellows
Wed, 06/06/2012 - 8:05am
As a business person I object to the writers comment that the PPT is not a wise tax. Would someone from the Michigan Chamber, the Michigan Manufacturers Association or the legislature please point out why this tax must be eliminated - with some factual information and decent analysis beyond the theoretical pap produced by the Anderson Economic Group that states 6,000 to 15, 000 jobs will be created and a billion in new capital investment will occur if this tax is eliminated. Prove it or guarantee it with penalties for failure or leave the tax alone. By the way, the Anderson Study did not include the impact on libraries in its study. Oops! It is also claimed that this tax is difficult to comply with because of different depreciation schedules and the burden of keeping track of personal property. Duh, it is the 21st Century in an age when Personal Property can track itself, apply depreciation schedules and report out with the press of a key. That's a capital investment that will increase cash flow, add value to an enterprise and reduce variable costs. The message? If you want to be competitive don't do it at the expense of the civil society that provides the infrastructure and essential services that permit businesses to exist. I submit to all that libraries are far more necessary to a civil society, especially a civil society that wishes to be accurately and honestly informed with impartial information versus the kind of baloney and malarkey being produced by those who wish to eliminate the tax.