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Trustees look to strengthen library’s finances


OGDENSBURG — When the Ogdensburg Public Library’s board of trustees holds its annual winter retreat, the conversation will focus on one major topic: the financial future of the library.

At the board meeting Thursday, Director Wayne L. Miller laid out several proposals, from raising revenues to offering another public referendum like the one defeated in 2011.

The library’s outlook for this year is far from carefree. Its $582,712 budget has a city contribution of $532,712, $13,000 less than requested. Also missing is $11,502 in St. Lawrence County funds.

“There’s a lot to consider here,” said Cathy C. Piche, the board’s chairwoman.

Two years ago, the library proposed a $527,245 Ogdensburg City School District tax levy in a referendum. Viewed as a means of eliminating the dependence on city funds, it was voted down 626-356.

“It was a very sobering experience,” Mr. Miller said. “People saw it as another tax.”

Referendums, he said in his monthly report to the trustees, have a mixed record of results.

“There are many instances of this model which led us to go on the school ballot two years ago,” he said. “In some instances, like Potsdam, it took more than one try. In other instances, like Long Lake, Rome and Albany, the library decided that the investment in purchasing the services of specialized professional services was critical. Our first foray was disheartening to some, but was also a great learning experience. It helped generate community support both during the campaign and since. There are libraries that wait until a public vote becomes a life or death option before going on the ballot. In Norwood’s case, their successful eleventh hour vote has given them a new lease on life. In Constantia in Oswego County, defeated propositions meant the end of their public library.”

Another idea is to start charging more for services and features and charging for those that are now free.

“To a small degree, Ogdensburg Public Library and most libraries are already employing this model,” Mr. Miller said in his report. “We charge for printing, copying, fax services and are currently adding facility rental. Current pricing is designed to recover the basic cost of the service. These fees could be increased. Canton (Free Library) charges adults one dollar for DVDs. Ogdensburg Public Library currently loans between 10,000 and 15,000 DVDs per year. On one hand, people tend to value things to the degree for which they pay for them. On the other, there is a strong ‘free public library’ brand built upon collective community funding to provide services and materials that are equally available to all. Would it become even more difficult to justify the appropriation of tax dollars for a service which charges its customers? Or have society and this community come to expect, or at least accept, the ‘fee for service’ model for public services?”

“I can see it as a revenue stream,” he said. “A buck here and a buck there. It might not be a bad thing.”

The library’s $500,000 endowment is also a key player in shaping the library’s financial stability. “Currently, Ogdensburg Public Library derives about five percent of our budget from the general endowment,” Mr. Miller said in his report. “Increasing that endowment to the $3 million or $4 million range would generate 30 percent of our budget, a substantial portion.”

Ms. Piche said all possibilities should be explored if the library is ever to be self-sustaining.

“Financial stability is everything,” she said.

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