Museum Center, Libraries Seek Help

Tax levies make up for state budget cuts, aging of facilities

With four countywide tax levies on the November ballot, the most since 1994, you would expect the public to balk. But with two in particular — levies in support of the Cincinnati Museum Center and the Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County — that doesn’t seem to be the case, with widespread support for both.

Issue 6, the Museum Center levy, is a renewal of the 2004 levy, though with a slight reduction. The new levy, a 0.18 mill, five-year tax, would raise an expected $3.4 million a year, which center officials say is “absolutely necessary” just for upkeep of the aging building.

Housed in the 76-year-old Union Terminal, the Museum Center is suffering from water damage, cracking concrete and crumbling plaster in need of repairs, says center President and CEO Douglass McDonald (pictured). The center spends about $2.5 million annually in basic upkeep.

For taxpayers, the levy renewal means an owner of a $100,000 home would pay about $4.43 a year for the tax, a 50-cent reduction from a previous levy. More importantly, McDonald adds, it’s about half of what taxpayers had been paying to support the center.

A previous bond issue, passed in 1986 to aid the center in moving into Union Terminal in 1990, also expires this year. That had cost an owner of a $100,000 home to also pay an additional $4.10 per year, which may explain why the latest request has been met without organized opposition.

“(The renewed levy) is less than the cost of a postage stamp a month. It’s less than 10 postage stamps per year,” McDonald says, putting forth several reasons the National Landmark Registry site needs community support. Earlier this week, the center was named a 2009 winner of the National Medal for Museum and Library Service, the nation’s highest honor.

It’s been ranked as the 17th-most attended museum in the country — above even Cleveland’s Rock and Roll Hall of Fame — and Union Terminal itself has been ranked as the 45th most important architectural structure in America by the American Institute of Architects.

“It’s an expensive building to maintain, but as challenging as it is to take care of, it’s also been a remarkably successful use for the building,” he says. “That’s why, I think, that people who don’t normally agree on issues agree on the necessity of sup porting the center and taking care of this building.”

Without the levy, its programs and exhibits could suffer, McDonald adds.

Center officials originally sought a 20-year bond, similar to the 1986 bond levy, that would have raised $120 million for major renovations and preservation projects spelled out by a 2007 study. But it later reduced the request to a $38 million levy, then Hamilton County commissioners cut that request in half to give the current ballot issue wider support and a better chance at passing.

Support is similarly widespread for Issue 7, the library levy. Unlike the Museum Center levy, however, it does have organized opposition.

With deep cuts in its state funding, the library system is seeking a new 1 mil, five-year tax that would provide about $20.2 million annually for library operating costs — the first time in its 150-year history it has sought local tax support. For the owner of a $100,000 home, that would mean $29.68 a year in taxes to support the 41 library locations, staffing and operating costs.

Earlier this year, Gov. Ted Strickland had proposed a $227 million cut in state funding for libraries. Though the budget later passed with only a third as much in reductions, the Cincinnati library still took a significant hit, says Kimber Fender, the library system’s director.

“Since 2000, our state funding has dropped by 28 percent,” she says, noting the local library is the only metropolitan system in Ohio with no local tax support. (Cleveland libraries receive $81.3 million annually from local taxes, while the Columbus-area receives $32.2 million and the Dayton-area gets $12.5 million.)

“The new budget dropped our funding nearly 20 percent for this year alone. It would be different if we had a huge budget, but we’re talking about $10 million out of a $50 million budget, That’s a pretty big cut to absorb in just one year,” Fender adds.

Overall, the Cincinnati system depends on state taxes for 90 percent of its annual budget.

If the levy doesn’t pass, Fender says, the library is looking at a $16 million operating deficit next year. It could be forced to close 15- 20 of its branches, reduce library hours and cut about 250 staff members. Capital projects and planned renovations to some branches already have been put on hold.

Those losses would come at a particularly bad time. According to Fender, the library has seen a surge in circulation this year, up more than 6 percent from last year, which translates into an increase of 700,000 book and media loans.

A local group, the Coalition Opposed to Additional Spending and Taxes (COAST), is advising a “no” vote on the levy.

COAST co-founder Tom Brinkman Jr., an ex-state representative, said its opposition is based on the belief the library hasn’t fully explored other ways to raise money before going to taxpayers.

Earlier this year, the group put forth several suggestions to the library board for weathering the funding shortfall. Those included charging user fees: a $1 fee for county library cardholders, a $10 fee for out-of-county cardholders, or a $1 charge for checking out DVDs. It also advocated looking at closing under-utilized branches, saving administration funds by paying employees on a monthly instead of biweekly basis, and looking at the number of new items the library purchases.

The board decided against implementing COAST’s suggestions.

“I’m a big fan of the library,” Brinkman explains. “I go to my local Oakley branch two to three times a week. But when they come to the taxpayers and say they’ve turned over every rock, they’ve looked in every corner to increase their revenue, it turns out they haven’t.”

For example, a $1 fee on the 6.9 million audiovisual and digital items checked out annually would make up a large part of the state funding shortfall, he says, pointing out that the practice is rather common in other library systems.

“The library is supposed to be a repository of knowledge, not a ‘Junior Blockbuster,’ “ Brinkman says.

Brinkman also says that a $10 fee for non-residents is only fair, and would be light compared to other systems — the Indianapolis library system, for instance, charges $65 to non-residents to get a library card. Non-resident cards have to be renewed annually.

Fender says the library board did look into the suggestions, but decided they would do little to erase the state funding cuts.

“We decided two things: First, we are a public library; Second, the amount of revenue that they would generate simply didn’t make it a viable option for all of the funding that was lost,” she says. “If it would reduce the amount of the levy or eliminate it entirely, we would feel differently. But it wouldn’t.”

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