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Ogdensburg library to go to taxpayers for funding


OGDENSBURG — The Ogdensburg Public Library wants to go directly to the taxpayers for all of its funding after roller coaster city and state cuts put its finances in limbo and its existence at risk and forced it to slash its hours and materials.

"Both local and state funding are getting cut more and more, and if there are too many cuts, the library will have to close its doors more often," said Linda S. Griffin, president of the library's board of directors. "We're trying to go to the voters to say, 'Is this valuable?' We hope it's as valuable as we think it is to the city."

The new tax structure, library officials said, would bring several benefits. More people would pay in to the library's budget, making it more equitable. The library would no longer have to depend on the whims of City Council, which currently allocates its funding. And it would give taxpayers a direct voice for the services they want. Those arguments have carried weight in many north country communities.

The long-anticipated move was originally approved in May. Thursday night, the board approved the amount that it would request: a $527,245 property tax levy from residents of the Ogdensburg City School District. The school district ballot is up for a vote on May 17.

Currently, only residents of the city itself pay taxes that are pooled into city funds and then go to the library. But many people who use the library don't live within city limits, so they don't pay anything.

That means that city residents currently pay $81.30 for every $50,000 in assessed property value, according to library estimates. Under the new structure, they would pay $73.36 for every $50,000 in assessed property value.

People who live in Oswegatchie or Morristown but are in the school district, of course, would see their contribution go from zero to $73.36. Library officials say it's only fair.

"They are receiving a service," said Wayne L. Miller, the library's executive director. "If they want it to continue, they need to contribute fairly and equitably."

By going directly to the taxpayers, the funding would also become more stable, Mrs. Griffin said.

"It's a way of ensuring a set amount of money goes into the budget for the library," she said. "The city has a lot on its plate that they have to think about, and they have to make cuts somewhere. It doesn't look like it's getting any easier for them."

City Council approved $459,199 in funding for 2011 in December. That's $47,000 less than the library had asked for.

When the issue comes before the taxpayers, the library will ask for $527,245. That will provide a $6,000 budget for new materials, which had been cut to zero, and will allow the library to roll back cuts in operating hours that were a result of sluggish city and state funding.

Library officials are ramping up efforts to sell the measure to school district taxpayers.

"Any time you mention taxes, people's radar screens go on high alert," Mr. Miller said.

He said that he and other library officials will spread the word with a message: lower taxes for city residents, and a fair share of the funding burden from residents outside the city, in the school district, who use the library.

"It will take a major effort to make people understand what we're doing," he said.

That effort usually passes, said Joan E. Pellikka, the Jefferson County library consultant for the North Country Library System.

"The public tends to support their libraries," she said. "They can take it right to the taxpayers. I feel like everybody wins."

Libraries in the Clayton, Cape Vincent, Carthage, Alexandria Bay, Belleville Henderson and South Jefferson school districts, among others, have turned to this method in the past few years, she said. While some have failed, the vast majority pass.

"This is democracy in action," she said.

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