By KEVIN NEVERS
If the basic point of the Indiana Commission on Local
Government Reform (CLGR) is to reduce property owners’ tax bills—through the
consolidation, for instance, of smaller township library systems with larger
county ones—then the question naturally arises: how much are property owners
actually paying to support the Westchester Public Library (WPL), and how
significant a burden is that amount?
The WPL’s pay-2008 rate was $0.1218 per $100 of assessed
valuation. On paper the owner of a Chesterton home assessed at $150,000—and,
to simplify matters, on which no credits or exemptions have been filed—paid
$182.70 last year to the WPL (150,000 divided by 100 multiplied by 0.1218).
That same homeowner paid $849.45 to the Town of Chesterton
(rate $0.5663) and a total of $3,861.90 to all taxing units (rate $2.5746,
when the state, county, airport, township, library, school, and municipal
In other words, the WPL took only 4.7 percent of that
homeowner's total bill.
Now $182.70 is still $182.70. So let’s put that amount into
even sharper context. For $182.70 you could annually rent 42 new release
DVDs from Blockbuster or not quite one per week (at $4.39 each) or 92
non-new release videos or not quite two per week (at $1.99 each).
Or you could simply visit the WPL and borrow your DVDs and
videos at no charge, up to four at a time, from its collection of 15,467
titles (in 2006).
My family borrows around four children's features a week from
the WPL, figure 200 a year: Arthur, The Magic School Bus, that
sort of thing. Were we to rent those from Blockbuster at 99 cents each, we
would pay at least $206 annually.
Perhaps you're a reader who’d be tempted to purchase a
hardcover book—at $20, let's say—had not the WPL already added it to its
collection of 141,514 titles. Perhaps you're an avid reader who'd be tempted
to purchase one hardcover book per month. Every year the WPL saves
Or maybe you’re like me. Every now and then—once a month, for
the sake of argument—I get an itch to hear a particular song 20 or 30 times
before getting sick of it forever. I could buy the whole CD, at $13 let’s
say, play the song obsessively for a week or two, then never listen to it
again. But I don’t. I just borrow the CD from the WPL’s collection of 10,335
titles. Every year, by that reckoning, the WPL saves me $156.
In short, card holders enjoyed an enormous savings last year
on rental fees and purchase prices, concealed somewhere in the WPL's total
lendings of 159,157 books, 147,927 CD and videos, and 32,852 CDs.
How great a savings?
The Indiana State Library has calculated that every $1 spent
on public libraries in the state yields direct benefits with a market value
of $2.38, including access not only to adult and children’s holdings but
also to reference assistance, meeting rooms, computer use, adult and
children’s programs, and magazines and newspapers. So when a Westchester
Township family remitted its $182.70 WPL levy for 2008, it actually made a
payment on goods and services with a market value of at least $434.26, much
more of course if that family is a heavy user of the WPL.
Very seldom do we have an opportunity to determine, with
anything like certainty, what it would cost us to provide for ourselves a
service currently provided by government. For many Westchester Township
property owners, I suspect, the library tax is an out-and-out bargain. For
others, it’s a perfectly acceptable supplement to their annual entertainment
Now the CLGR is recommending the consolidation of smaller
libraries with county ones, not the liquidation of them. Once local control
is lost of the smaller libraries, however, it may amount to nearly the same
thing. The county library boards of trustees, struggling to fund the
services and programs of their new acquisitions on top of those of their
existing facilities, might be tempted to let the consolidated branches
languish, to slash their budgets, cut their personnel, reduce their hours of
operation, shrink their holdings. Bottom line: in Westchester Township
property owners would still be paying a library tax rate—the Porter County
one—yet could well find their entertainment choices at the old WPL
increasingly limited and their out-of-pocket entertainment expenses
Or—in the alternative—a county library board of trustees
trying to make ends meet could conceivably file an excess levy appeal with
the Indiana Department of Local Government Finance. In this case whatever
benefit might have been gained from the elimination of the WPL tax rate
would be largely negated by the increase of the Porter County Library tax
Put it this way. If the CLGR wants to make a credible
recommendation in favor of consolidation, it must demonstrate two things:
first, that the tax burden imposed by the WPL on property owners truly is
onerous; second, that consolidation truly would relieve that burden without
in any way sacrificing the entertainment choices currently available to card
holders at the WPL.