GRAND RAPIDS — The head of the Grand Rapids Public Library says she was “disappointed” and surprised by the Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce’s opposition to the group’s millage request before city voters on Nov. 7.
The two sides fundamentally disagree over whether the request — which effectively continues a tax levy at the same rate that’s been in place since 1997 but will be used for additional purposes — is a tax increase.
In 1997, city voters approved a library millage specifically to fund capital improvement projects and maintenance. The .3741-mill levy — or just under $18.76 a year for a home valued at $100,276 — in place since 1997 would be kept at the same rate for the next 20 years under the proposal. In addition to maintenance and capital repairs, millage funds could also be used for “operations,” according to the ballot language.
If approved, the library expects the millage to generate about $1.75 million in the first year. The library’s 2016 budget was $9.4 million.
“The millage request itself does not call it a renewal, but we make it clear that it is the same amount” that has been in place, said Marcia Warner, director of the Grand Rapids Public Library. “It’s not costing anyone any more than they’re currently paying. That’s where the Chamber has chosen to go in a different direction, saying it’s a new request because it’s for something new.”
The Grand Rapids Chamber has taken issue with what it sees as using tax dollars to support the day-to-day operations of the system, which is already supported by a much larger property tax millage. The group also says 20 years is too long of a period to lock in support from voters.
Overall, the Chamber claims the library has not done enough cost-cutting or examined potential partnerships with the Kent County library system, calling the millage an unsustainable approach to a long-term budget issue.
Andy Johnston, vice president of government and corporate affairs at the Chamber, said in an interview that “from a personnel and programmatic perspective, we feel a lot of options could be explored that could save dollars and be put toward a more efficient operation.”
Warner said the Chamber’s cost-cutting and partnership claims are “not true.” Three years ago, GRPL eliminated 18 positions and cut the budget by nearly $1 million, Warner said.
“If you look at the numbers, we spend about $11 less per person in the city on library services than the county does,” Warner said. “I’d love for the Chamber to look closely and see the city library could take over the county library and save them money.”
GRPL is comprised of eight branches across the city, which officials say were used by 1.5 million people last year.
The previous 20-year millage was used to pay off bonds for renovating the downtown Grand Rapids branch as well as building the Madison Square and Seymour branches on the south side of the city, Warner said.
While the library has a fund balance of nearly $2.4 million, it also has building maintenance and parking lot projects on the horizon budgeted at about $1 million. According to budget documents, these projects are expected to increase capital expenditures from about $2 million in fiscal year 2016 to $2.9 million in 2018.
“We need to be putting away more than we are currently,” Warner said. “Right now, we are putting away about $300,000 (annually). It needs to be more like $550,000 for future building investments so (buildings) don’t end up in the state they were in for the original millage.”
The library also notes millage revenues are at roughly the same level as in 2006.
“I don’t know that there’s anything you can do, eat or live on that costs you the same as in 2006,” Warner said.
Millage revenue would also support more programming, such as bolstering the library’s digital products. The library’s budget is approved by an elected board of library commissioners, which would decide how the millage funds are spent.
“We’re at the end of a three-year strategic plan — it’s perfect timing for the board and the community to come together and set a new direction and then have some real dollars to support that plan,” Warner said.
Without the millage, Warner said “we’ll just keep going like we’re going now until we can’t do that any longer,” adding that it could affect branch hours and staffing as well as the amount of digital materials the library purchases for downloading.
In addition to the capital millage that’s been in place since 1997, library operations are also supported by a much larger 2.15-mill levy on property taxes, which makes up about 90 percent of its operations revenue, or $8.5 million.
‘SEEMS ONLY FAIR’
Warner also notes that a portion of the library’s millage revenues are captured by entities like the Downtown Development Authority (DDA).
“Between tax captures and abatements — including $600,000 a year to the DDA — the library loses more than $1 million of its actual millage money to other entities in the city that benefit those Chamber members,” Warner said. “They’re getting a good piece of the library millage, and it seems only fair that they’d support us in trying to replace some of that millage.”
Grand Rapids resident Joe Bauman, who was browsing the downtown branch on a recent Monday afternoon, said this is a point of contention for him.
“What I don’t like is, when millages pass, 100 percent doesn’t go to the library,” he said, referring to other tax-capturing entities.
Bauman says he’s in the downtown branch “most everyday” to “read the periodicals” because it’s along his walking route. However, he questioned the need for the additional revenue, and when asked if he was going to vote for it, he said, “Probably not. But I’m sure it’s going to pass.”
Johnston responded to the tax-capture criticism: “This new tax is about GRPL, not the Downtown Development Authority. We want the most effective and efficient library system possible. We remain focused on the appropriateness of a new 20-year tax and believe new unrestricted revenue will remove the incentive to work toward a stronger, more resilient library system.”
At the state and local level, the Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce has in recent years been vocally supportive of policies to bolster third-grade reading levels and that promote early childhood education. When asked how opposing a library millage squares with those efforts, Johnston said the Chamber simply wants to ensure the GRPL is sustainable.
“We’re not against libraries — we love libraries and love the services they provide to the community,” Johnston said. “We just want the smartest, most effective operations to meet the needs of all citizens. If (the millage) passes, we’re concerned that it takes away some incentives to further work on enhanced operations. There’s nothing personal here, it’s just that friends can disagree on the right way to go about things. We hoped there would have been more due diligence done before seeking this tax.”
However, Warner says the Chamber’s position doesn’t necessarily align with what city residents need.
“They don’t just represent the city, they represent all of West Michigan,” Warner said of the Chamber. “We’re interested in what the city needs. Their agenda certainly is not going to be the same as ours.”