For 3 years, it ran in the Greeley Tribune. Since then, it has run in various subsidiaries of the Douglas County News Press. I still have most of my columns in digital format.
For many years, I only gave myself one rule: try to work the word "library" into every piece. My intent was to think in public about just what librarianship means at the end of the 20th century and beginning of the 21st.
There have been many advantages for me. I found that putting library plans out in front of the public, and getting feedback about them, helped me make better decisions. Sometimes, I found that it was very difficult for me to describe those plans or policies -- the kind of thing that makes me realize that they might not be good ideas after all. The weekly discipline of explaining my profession to the public keeps me more mindful, more honest. It also has provided steady visibility for the library and its issues.
March 18, 2010 - expect less in 2011
Annually, the planning cycle of the Douglas County Libraries used to look like this:
* at a spring manager retreat (this year, that meant a day at Louviers) we brainstorm our best, most exciting ideas for the next year, then whittle them down to the few that matter most.
* at a board retreat a few weeks later (this year, half a day in Highlands Ranch), I present those ideas. The board approves, rejects, revises, or adds their own ideas.
* then we develop budgets and work plans. That all gets reviewed in the fall, and adopted in December.
This year it's different. Like a lot of families and businesses, the Douglas County Libraries will have less money next year than last.
Unlike many other public libraries, we invested in radically redesigned checkout/checkin systems, and planned attrition over two years ago. We're running tighter, more efficiently, since even before the recession.
And that's good. We are facing three scenarios next year.
- Here's our best case: a 9 percent drop in revenue for 2011. Library revenue comes mostly from property taxes. Assessments are falling. Library business is not, by the way. We're still seeing double-digit growth in use.
- Our middle case forecasts a loss of 16 to 20 percent. Residential real estate assessments may dip by 2 percent or so. Commercial properties will take a much bigger hit.
- Then there is our worst case. Three big questions will be on the ballot this fall (state constitutional Amendments 60 and 61, and proposition 101). If they pass, they will do a number of things:
- despite voter approval for a tax increase in 1996, one measure will roll Douglas County Libraries' revenue back to what the dollar amount of that increase meant 14 years ago.
- another measure denies unelected library boards the ability to charge fees or levy taxes. Making library boards elected requires an additional change in state law, and the new cost of elections.
- proposition 101 would reduce library revenues (our share of motor vehicle registration fees) from $1.4 million a year to less than $10,000 a year.
Add 'em up, and those measures slash library budgets by at least a third -- over $7 million. The effect on schools, counties, municipalities and other special districts is similarly dire.
What does it all mean? It means that despite growth stats most businesses would kill for, the Douglas County Libraries will not be launching any bold new initiatives next year. We'll be focusing on doing what we do well, what people really use, on what we hope we can sustain.
Dealing with a recession is one thing. When our community suffers, we suffer with it. That's fair.
But these measures are something different. The whole state might decide to overturn decisions Douglas County voters have made about their library. Despite its history of thoughtful planning, despite 20 years of balanced budgets, despite still-growing use of its services, the library might well find itself returned overnight to where it was six or seven years ago.That means laying off up to a third of our staff, and, I strongly suspect, closing libraries. Think: Aurora.
As always, library board and staff will continue to do the best we can with what we have. We're entrepreneurs and innovators. We're attentive to our communities.
On the other hand, I'm a pragmatist. I think it only honest to let people know what the next couple of years will be about, in any of the scenarios.
LaRue's Views are his own.