Wednesday, February 03, 1999

Suburbanites, you can help your library

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        People using suburban libraries around here feel pinched, cramped and frustrated. They live in booming communities. And, they want their libraries to grow with them.

        So far, libraries in Warren, Butler and Clermont counties have not kept pace with the population explosion. They don't have the money to put up enough new buildings, buy enough books and purchase enough computers.

        Gary Cates thinks he can solve this problem. The state representative from West Chester wants to change the state's complex formula for funding libraries.

        The formula, established in 1986, does not distribute money on a straight, per-person basis. It's based on income tax collection, with provisions to maintain large library systems that developed under old formulas.

        One of the older systems is the Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County. And as a proud native son, I'm happy Cincinnati's public library, a world-renowned gem, would not take a hit if lawmakers change the rules. But that doesn't help in Warren and Butler counties.

        Mr. Cates proposes taking money from other programs or state income tax refunds and giving the dollars to struggling suburban libraries in growth-spurt counties.

        Ohio Senate President Richard Finan tells me such a plan — any plan that significantly messes with the distribution of public funds — would “be a tough vote.” In layman's terms: It's not going to happen.

        Mr. Finan said opening up the formula for change is a big risk for the counties in need. “Today the big counties are so powerful, instead of giving more money to the smaller counties, they just might take it away.”

        Even though Mr. Cates' plan may be a long shot, suburban residents should not sit still. There are things people can do to help libraries get much-needed money.

Voting yes
        Two ways to raise money locally are through a bond issue or tax levy.

        And, Ohio's public libraries have a tremendous batting average when they ask for help at the ballot box. Seventy-eight percent of library bond issues or tax levies pass on the first try. If a second try is required, the success rate jumps to 84 percent.

        “People have a soft spot in their hearts when it comes to voting for libraries,” said Lynda Murray, director of government relations for the Ohio Library Council.

        Placing a library levy on a ballot, she informed me, is not complicated. A need is identified — a new building, 100 new computers. Then a proposal is sent to the library's board and its taxing authority, be it a school board, the county commissioners or a city council. Once approved, the levy's on the ballot.

        Libraries can raise money without going to the voters. Mason's public library paid for an addition with contributions and fund-raisers.

        “We even had bake sales,” said Sarah Brown. Mason's library director told me money also was raised the old-fashioned way. “We did without. We saved money.”

Reference question
        In the meantime, suburban library patrons do have options.

        The holdings of the Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County are free to anyone with a library card. No matter what county they live in, all Ohio residents can get one.

        Amy Banister, the library's spokeswoman, told me 9 percent of last year's record 12.8 million items circulated “went to people outside Hamilton County.”

        Anyone with computer access can open the library's online card catalog to see if, say, The Tales of Tweety Bird, is in the collection.

        Find what you need but don't care to drive downtown from Warren County? Just arrange for an inter-library loan. The book will be sent to your local library within three days.

        When all else fails, ask your local librarian. He or she may not be able to make new computers appear, but helping to find a much-needed book or article is usually a snap.

        And then, if you see the librarian asking for help on Election Day, return the favor with a vote of support.

        Columnist Cliff Radel can be reached at 768-8379; fax 768-8340.

        Columnist Cliff Radel can be reached at 768-8379; fax 768-8340.