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Published: Sunday, 7/29/2012

Editorial

Books and bucks

SPEND a buck, get nearly three dollars back. Where can you find an investment opportunity like that these days? Try the Toledo-Lucas County Public Library.

As part of their preparation to ask county voters for a property tax increase in November, library executives engaged University of Toledo economist Oleg Smirnov to quantify the library system's economic impact and the return on investment it provides this community. The conclusion that emerges from the data: The library is even a better bargain than many Toledoans already understood.

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The UT study calculates that the library provides public services worth as much as $136 million a year -- circulating books and other materials, supplying expert reference help, and offering other "value-added" services such as access to computers, wireless connections, and meeting space. Stated another way, for every dollar the library spends, the community gets $2.86 in benefits.

Observing that nearly three-fourths of Lucas County residents have library cards, the study asserts that the library "provides many benefits to the community in a cost-efficient way" and "contributes much" to local prosperity.

Between 2007 and 2011, the report notes, the library's work force declined from about 345 employees to 275, and its annual budget for materials dropped from $4.7 million to $4.1 million. Such cuts were consequences of declining state aid and lower local property values as the Great Recession descended.

The library also has had to cut operating hours and children's programs. Yet in the same period, the number of items circulated by the library rose by 17 percent, and patrons' computer use exploded.

The library system seeks a five-year tax renewal and increase of 2.9 mills this year. The operating levy would cost the owner of a $100,000 house about $88 a year, $27 more than he or she pays now.

The tax would raise about $21 million a year, roughly half the library's income. If voters approve it, library leaders say it will pay for longer hours at branches and more books, materials, and technology. If it fails, they say they will have to slash programs, services, and collections.

County voters will face tax requests this fall from not only the library, but also the Metroparks, Imagination Station, Lucas County Children Services, and the Mental Health and Recovery Services Board. Toledo residents will decide on proposed levies for Toledo Public Schools and city parks and recreation programs.

Getting any or all of these millages passed as the local economy remains sluggish will be difficult. Each institution that seeks a new or renewed tax will have to make its case on the basis of hardheaded dollars-and-cents analysis of its effect on economic development. Tax-weary voters are unlikely to be swayed by emotional appeals to "do it for the children."

The value of the library study is that it provides such an objective analysis. At the same time, the report adds that its calculation of the economic value of library services focuses on tangible benefits and "does not take into account human capital and quality of life aspects" of library users, which are considerable.

Lucas County voters will be fortunate if this year's other millage campaigns are conducted on the fact-based foundation that the library has established.



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