What would local citizens want to support with taxes if they were starting over, if there were no beloved tradition or fear of loss? There is little doubt that the basic infrastructure of police, fire, and public works would survive. Most would also fund a safety net for those in distress, not only because it is the humanitarian thing to do but also because neglect of this support has its own heavy costs in crime, health care, and loss of life. Education and jails are mandated services, and both faced increased costs if children and adults fall through the cracks. Then there is quality of life, the kind of things that make the community a desirable place to find a job, raise a family, or retire.
Local governments that survey their residents and build a budget for services around their expressed priorities often rank public library service as first or second in terms of quality of life. Our library system attracts about 600,000 visitors a year, roughly comparable to the Tennessee Aquarium and superior to most other facilities. When you compare the amount of capital funding and marketing invested in the Aquarium as compared to the Library over the past two decades, our high performance is definitive proof that we offer something that people care about.
Then there is the safety net reducing expenses related to crime, health, and education. Last year, a federal study noted that 3.7 million people found jobs in 2009 by using public libraries to research and apply for positions. We are the only place in town offering both abundant free high-speed Internet & computer service and knowledgeable personnel willing and able to help. Many times that number of people come to public libraries looking for assistance, finding solutions to health or homework problems, or making connections with their own personal safety net of family members and friends. All of this helps prevent many from falling into worse trouble. While I would love to brag that our high circulation of books last year (higher than it has been since the early 1980s) was entirely due to improved services, the truth is that more people than ever turned to us because of the recession. We are an essential part of the safety net and it would cost much more to provide the same services if we were closed down than it does to fund the public library system.
Local taxes provide $5.4 million to fund library service. The State of Tennessee provides between $0 and about $94,000, depending on state budget pressures. We make up the rest with fees and donations and provide free basic services to the entire county. Last year, that service included five buildings & 103,000 registered card holders, 838,000 circulated items, over 1,000 preschool children served with books and story hours each month in three dozen area day cares, a separate 1,000 children a month served in branch library story hours, over 56,000 people attending library programs, over 228,000 patrons using the computers in our buildings, and over 36 million uses of our web page each year. That is quite a lot to obtain from the 89 FTE employees who account for 80% of our costs in salaries & benefits. The approximately $500,000 spent for materials such as books, magazines, DVDs, and databases goes very far (between ten cents and a dollar per use) because of our very efficient business model of shared use. To give some idea how efficient we are, we provide a DVD rental program that is half the cost of Netflix and is not only fully funded by the small rental charge, but also generates enough profit to fund downloadable bestsellers as well.
Next: the cost & benefit of branch services and alternatives.