Keep control, library panel suggests to council
Explorer file photo, The Town of Oro Valley and Pima County currently share the costs for library operations.

A recently completed report on the Oro Valley Public Library recommends that the town not hand over operational control to Pima County, despite the additional costs associated with maintaining local power.

The report highlights the attachment some people have with the Oro Valley Public Library, while detailing the concern others have with the costs of keeping local control.

In February, the town council commissioned the study, which was conducted by residents and town staff over the course of four months.

Each council member appointed one member to the commission, which was asked to weigh the merits of keeping the current library arrangement — in which the town shares costs and responsibilities with Pima County — or relinquishing control completely.

"We may have even gone further than the council wanted us to," said commission chairman Doug McKee, Councilman K.C. Carter's appointee.

Currently, the library operates under an agreement with the county in what town officials say is "affiliate" status in the countywide materials-lending system.

County officials maintain the library is not an affiliate because certain formalities have not been completed. Commission members wrote in their study that the intergovernmental agreement binding the two entities effectively resolves the issue.

Whatever the official status, Oro Valley and the county split costs for the library as well as sharing an ownership stake in the building and materials. The town owns the property, and library employees work for Oro Valley.

Under the arrangement, operating costs for the library are shared, with the county reimbursing the town 50 percent of the costs. In the current budget year, county reimbursements will total $620,000, slightly less than half the $1.3 million operating expenditures. The remaining expenses, roughly $700,000 annually, are paid out of the town's general fund.

That aspect of the agreement lies at the heart of the debate about the Oro Valley Public Library.

Whether or not the county recognizes the town's library as an affiliate, Oro Valley property owners are still subject to the countywide library district property tax, prompting some to say the arrangement imposes a greater burden on townspeople than it does other county residents.

"We're already paying double taxation on the library," Councilman Bill Garner said.

This year, Oro Valley property owners will pay an estimated $2.3 million into the library district. In fiscal 2010, which begins July 1, local levies are expected to drop to about $1.8 million because County Administrator Chuck Huckleberry has recommended lowering the library district tax from $0.34 per $100 assessed value to $0.26. The new rate would bring in $26 million toward funding the $37.4 million countywide library system.

The county plans to make up a portion the shortfall from revenue generated through fines, grants and interest. The remaining $9.8 million would be taken out of library fund reserves.

The county has amassed nearly $17 million in reserve funds. In an April 27 memo to county supervisors, Huckleberry noted the library tax rate would likely have to be increased in subsequent years to prevent draining the reserves.

McKee recognizes the frustration people have with paying essentially twice for one library.

"The driving force behind all of this is to get rid of the double taxation," McKee said.

To rectify the tax issue, the library report recommends negotiating with the county for a larger reimbursement, possibly 100 percent, once the current agreement expires in 2012.

The report also suggests lobbying state legislators to change the laws that govern library tax districts. Currently, a municipality can't opt out of the county-imposed tax or create its own library district.

McKee favors this option, but recognizes the difficulty in influencing lawmakers in Phoenix.

"The best option would be the hardest to implement — to change state law," McKee said.

The library commission also recommended town officials "increase general fund revenues" through an increase to the local utility tax, or initiating a new local tax to fund the library. The report says this option should expire with the current agreement in 2012.

Garner, for one, takes issue with that element of the proposal.

"That is not going to happen on my watch," Garner said, calling the proposal a triple tax. He said he would oppose any additional tax intended to pay for the library and questioned the foresight of such a recommendation.

"I don't see anyone on council falling on their swords, especially with an election year coming up," Garner said.

Councilwoman Salette Latas expressed similar reservations to the current structure, saying Oro Valley is "a net donor to the county system. We really are asking our residents to pay twice."

McKee understands the apprehension of asking residents to pony up additional money, but said the library stands as a valuable community asset that serves Oro Valley well.

"If you've got 700 to 1,000 people a leaving the library with a smile on their faces," McKee said, "I don't see how in the world you want to change that."

According to a survey the town commissioned in late 2007, the library ranked as one of the most important services provided in Oro Valley. Among 19 town services, survey respondents put the library at number six, behind police and emergency services, roads, planning for growth and schools.

Respondents also showed a strong willingness to pay for the library service, with more than 83 percent saying they were either somewhat or very willing to pay for the service.

Library commission authors note the survey results in the report.

But, according to a recent e-mail survey conducted independently by Councilwoman Latas, more than 58 percent of the people queried said they would support a turnover of library operations to the county if it meant saving money.

McKee cast doubt on the results of Latas' survey, saying the question did not provide people with enough information to understand the library issue completely.

"All they were told was that they were going to save some money," McKee said.

Seeking to put the issue in better context, the library report named a number of potential drawbacks to relinquishing control to the county.

The study says support from Friends of the Oro Valley Public Library, a group dedicated to raising money for and volunteering at the library, would likely wane if the county took control.

The group has raised more than $500,000 for the library in the past several years, with volunteers donating countless hours and maintaining a bookstore at the facility.

Some question whether the change would impact the friends group at all, noting that at least three other branches of the county library system have their own volunteer groups similar to the Friends of the Oro Valley Library.

"I certainly feel that every objection has been adequately addressed," Latas said.

Report authors suggested that rates of volunteerism generally would suffer if the library changed hands. An area that library patrons could see decline, according to the study, is in the number of local experts willing to donate their time to library programs.

Another prediction of the study holds that once the county took over, books will start to flee the Oro Valley facility. Now, most books checked out in Oro Valley have to be returned to the same library. In the county system, however, books can be returned to any of the 26 libraries.

"The net effect is expected to be a rapid reduction in inventory," the report noted, speculating that as many as 20,000 books a year would be taken out of Oro Valley and never returned.

Another potential drawback comes from use of the library's computer lab. Town employees use the lab for computer training, and this year used the facility for nearly an entire month. Study authors say the county likely would not allow the town such extensive use of the facility if control was handed over.

Some have questioned the results of the study and its recommendations.

"It's so full of veiled threats, innuendo and inaccuracies it's beyond belief," Oro Valley resident John Musolf said.

Garner appointed Musolf to the library commission. In May, Musolf resigned from the group.

"I resigned over pure and utter frustration," Musolf said.

He said McKee exerted an inordinate amount of power over the commission's proceedings and set meeting agendas without input from other group members.

"He completely controlled the meetings," Musolf said.

Musolf also questioned the potential consequences of turning over the library to the county as spelled out in the report.

"Show me all the letters they received from experts that said they would not still volunteer," Musolf said.

He also cast doubt on the idea that county officials would not allow Oro Valley employees the use of the computer lab for training purposes in the future, saying no one in the group bothered to ask the county's library staff.

"It's just fear-mongering and conjecture," Musolf said.

According to McKee, other issues would make handing over the library to the county difficult, including what would become of ownership of the property. Under the current agreement the building and its contents are shared with the county, while Oro Valley owns the property.

McKee said a similar arrangement was maintained between Tucson and the county before the city decided to hand over the libraries to Pima in 2006. When it did, it also took ownership of the property of at least one library that the city had previously owned, the Wilmot branch on Tucson's east side.

McKee said the county argued that it had more than a 50 percent investment in the library, and therefore took the entire property in the trade.

The idea of the county owning not only a building but also land on the grounds of the Oro Valley municipal complex would be troubling to some, McKee said.

Another problem would be whether the county would seek to use its naming rights to change the name of the Oro Valley Public Library.

Overall, Garner said he found the report lacking.

"These folks have not thought things through," Garner said of the report. "I would have hoped that they would have given us a report with some viable solutions."

The council plans to discuss the library report at the Wednesday, June 17 meeting. Members could accept the commission's findings or ask for additional options.

Agreement with Pima County

Oro Valley negotiated with Pima County library officials and the board of supervisors for more than a year before the current intergovernmental agreement was signed in October 2009.

It expires June 30, 2012.

Under terms of the deal, the county agrees to repay the town up to 50 percent of "eligible shared operating expenses."

Capital improvements, grounds keeping, travel and training costing more than $2,500, food and drink expenses, computer hardware and software and salary adjustments that exceed the 50 percent cost-sharing agreement are not eligible for reimbursement.

If the town decides to terminate the agreement with the county, Oro Valley would have to pay the county for half the value of the library contents, including books and computers.

Under the agreement, the town also is responsible for any legal claims and attorneys fees associated with lawsuits or insurance claims against the library.

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