From user fees to fines to taxes, financial support model evolves

Pauline Kynard holds up a sign for a 2012 library levy campaign during a kickoff event in front of Fifth Third Field in September of that year.
Pauline Kynard holds up a sign for a 2012 library levy campaign during a kickoff event in front of Fifth Third Field in September of that year.

In 19th century Toledo, access to a library cost $2 to $3 for an annual membership.

Today, anyone can get a free library card to borrow books or other circulating materials from the Toledo-Lucas County Public Library system. The money to pay for it all comes from taxes — increasingly, locally raised levies to offset declining state funding.

In 1845, the Toledo Young Men’s Association — chartered seven years prior to establish a lyceum and a public library — charged its members $2 per year and had reading rooms with newspapers and magazines and access to its 500-volume library.

Republican members splintered off to form the Toledo Library Association in 1864 and offered separate reading rooms for men ($3) and women ($2). The two groups merged back together in 1867.

READ MORE: Toledo-Lucas County Public Library celebrates 175 years

A free public library finally was organized in Toledo in 1873, with the Toledo Library Association and the Toledo Board of Education both contributing materials to the new Toledo Public Library. But even then, overdue fines weren’t enough to pay the bills: A 0.5-mill property tax was assessed in the city for the library.

In 1931, Ohio instituted an intangible-assets tax, collected against stocks, bonds, and bank deposits, from which the revenue was earmarked for libraries. That tax would be collected for the next 54 years, giving libraries across the state a relatively predictable, if not uniform or always stable, source of revenue.

But by the 1970s, officials at the Toledo-Lucas County Public Library — the product of a 1970 merger among the city, Lucas County, and Sylvania libraries — determined that the state funding wasn’t enough.

Their first attempt at a county-wide levy — 0.2 mill for operations and 0.3 mill for capital improvements — failed at the polls in 1974. But three years later voters, responding to the threatened closings of three library branches to make up a $300,000 budget gap, approved a 0.7-mill tax for library operations.

That was replaced 10 years later by a 1-mill levy, and in 1995 voters also passed a 0.87-mill bond levy that financed $38.6 million in library improvements, including the Main Library’s expansion and replacement of several branch library buildings.

The operating levy was replaced in 1997, and another mill was added in 2003, again in response to reduced hours and materials purchases — this time blamed by library officials on state funding cuts.

The intangibles tax had been eliminated in 1985, with libraries instead promised a 6.3-percent share of Ohio’s income tax, now that stocks and bonds were taxed as regular income. But as budget times tightened toward the turn of the millennium, library funding from Columbus became frozen and then repeatedly cut.

According to the Ohio Library Council, state funding for public libraries fell from $496.5 million in 2001 to $344.0 million in 2012, a cumulative 30.7 percent decline.

Voters again agreed to take up the slack in the Toledo-Lucas County Public Library’s budget last Nov. 6. They approved a 2-mill replacement and 0.9-mill increase in the library system’s operating levy. It boosted the library-related tax bill in Lucas County to about $88 for each $100,000 in assessed property valuation — a $27 increase.

“State aid once accounted for 75 percent of the library’s operating budget. Today, it’s 48 percent. We get no more money from Columbus than we received in 1996,” Clyde Scoles, the library system’s director, wrote in an essay in The Blade during the levy campaign last fall.

With the new levy, state funding accounts for 40.2 percent of the library system’s $35,360,122 budget this year, while levy funds account for 54.6 percent. The rest comes from other sources, including donations and overdue materials fines.