Hernando commissioners are now an open book on paying for libraries. They are willing to maintain library services, even if it means scrounging $2 million from a cash-strapped general fund budget.
It is a welcome commitment that coincided with an April 23 commission vote to kill a separate tax for libraries. That was prudent and expected. But, the unexpected came in an unambiguous pledge of financial support for the libraries that have had their general fund allocation obliterated from more than $2.6 million in 2008 to less than $90,000 currently.
The county has paid for library operations by burning through accumulated state library aid. Even with state dollars, the county has cut the library budget by 21 percent from $2.9 million in 2008, kept libraries open for fewer hours and eliminated 16 positions from the payroll.
County staff recently suggested a new municipal service taxing district, known as an MSTU, to finance libraries separately from the general fund. The commission quashed that idea, but included a significant caveat.
"This commission, everybody here, is committed to adequately funding our library system to continue the excellent service they're currently providing based on the budget that they submit, if it's reasonable,'' said Commission Chairman David Russell.
"I agree,'' said Commissioner Wayne Dukes. "Absolutely.''
Commissioners now must ensure that commitment is more than lip service.
"Reasonable'' already has been defined. Just minutes earlier, the commission heard the libraries would need $2.4 million in 2014 to maintain current services and that there is only $400,000 available in state library aid. Generating $2 million in the general fund for libraries translates to approximately one-quarter mill of tax or 25 cents per $1,000 of taxable property value. To the owner of a single-family home valued at $100,000 with homestead exemptions, it means $12.50 a year.
That math is much more palatable than some of the public suggestions from anti-tax advocates including charging $30 for library cards that are now free to Hernando residents, or the discriminatory idea, masked as altruistic, requiring adults older than 35 to pay for library cards in order to ensure children and young adults were not denied access.
The gimmicks are unnecessary. The commission can read the tea leaves. In a recent citizen survey, 63 percent of the respondents said maintaining current government services is more important than lowering taxes and fees.
The public commitment to the county library system is an imperative recognition from the commission of the value of the county's quality-of-life enhancements.