When Earl Long and his buddies got together for breakfast at their usual restaurant Friday, the conversation turned to the Richland Library tax.
The group decided if they could get the new Ballentine library – with its proposed meeting room and conference space – to open in time for early morning coffee, they’d support the referendum so they could gather there instead, Long said, just half in jest.
Like many who support the library and its mission, Long, who lives in the fiscally conservative northwest part of the county, said he’s ambivalent about a Nov. 5 request to raise taxes to add amenities like meeting rooms and kitchens to local libraries.
“If we’re going to have libraries, and libraries are losing their main purpose – which is checking out books – we’ve got to improvise,” Long said. “Meeting space is good because we need those spaces.”
But it’s hard to vote for a tax increase, he said, when the price of everything is going up and the library’s needs don’t seem urgent.
“Only $14,” Long said. “Every time we need a tax increase, it’s ‘only’ this and ‘only that’ – but it adds up.”
Property taxes would go up $12 to $14 a year for the next 20 years to pay off the proposed $59 million in debt. Ten of the system’s 11 libraries would be improved; the 11th was expanded earlier this year.
Long said he remains undecided.
The library’s request for a property-tax increase will be the only item on the ballot in much of the county. That means a lot of people may skip Election Day, political observers say.
As libraries across the country re-evaluate their roles, many are adding room for community members to debate civic issues, celebrate local culture and share expertise, said Barbara Stripling, president of the American Library Association and a lifelong librarian.
“We’re pushing the books to the side, and creating flexible spaces that enable special programs,” she said.
“It’s related to the electronic environment, but not just because of the digitization of books. It’s really the separation we’re seeing in our communities and the hunger or thirst that people have for these community spaces,” she said.
Tax activist Michael Letts said he’s surprised just how many people aren’t aware there’s a tax issue on the ballot next month.
Between now and the election, his group, Not Another Tax Increase, is calling 10,000 regular voters. He said seven or eight out of every 10 calls are to people who didn’t know about the referendum.
“It’s just not on people’s radar screen – especially in the outlying areas,” said Letts, who lives in Northeast Richland County.
Letts questions the need to add square-footage to libraries at a time when more people are accessing books, information, movies and music online – often in their own homes.
While library spokeswoman Padgett Mozingo said requests for use of meeting space at libraries jumped 56 percent in the past year, Letts said those civic groups could just as easily use churches, schools and community centers for meetings.
“While it’s a nicety to be able to say we’re going to have our meeting at the library, it’s not a necessity,” he said.
“Their comeback to me is, ‘We haven’t done anything with the libraries since 1989.’ I can’t argue. Do we need to do some things to keep our libraries current? Yes. But I believe they’re overreaching.”
In Lower Richland, Lillie Bates said she is opposing the library tax because the Hopkins and Gadsden communities are not being served.
Proponents of the tax have not come to her community with information on the referendum, either, she said.
The improvements to bus service promised with last year’s increase in the sales tax for transportation left her community out, too.
“You keep on taxing the same people and giving them no service,” said Bates, vice-president of the Lower Richland NAACP.
“Library services are great – but include us, don’t just tax us.”
The closest library to her is 10 to 15 minutes away at Southeast regional on Garners Ferry Road.
Columbia voter Paul Higgins, meanwhile, said he just hasn’t heard enough about the referendum to decide how to vote.
“Every community needs a vibrant library,” he said. “I was there today with my granddaughter.”
But Higgins said he would like for the library to be “a bit more definite” about needs that are unmet and partnerships the library hopes to create with larger libraries.
“When I see that the library is now planning to provide kitchens, I just wonder what service is that providing that isn’t already provided by other community organizations,” he said.
“Certainly, libraries should change with the needs of the community, if the library can best meet those changing needs.”
Forest Acres voter Faye Pender said she can’t support the referendum because she’s adamantly opposed to kitchens, planned for at least six of the branches.
“Why do we need kitchens in libraries? Why not go ahead and put in beds and pillows?” asked Pender, a member of the library board of directors when voters approved the system’s expansion 20 years ago.
Mozingo, the library spokeswoman, said kitchens would allow groups to bring in refreshments for their meetings.
Further, she said the library director has some ideas for what they’re calling “partner spaces” within expanded libraries, but that nothing has been nailed down or even explored yet. Some examples include agencies that provide health screenings, counseling or literacy services.
“Libraries are about more than books. We are about learning,” Mozingo wrote in an email. “We serve as community centers, a trusted place for information and resources vital to life – job help, health information and resources for students of all ages.”
The expansion would add recurring costs for such things as staff and utilities estimated to cost an extra $169,524 a year, Mozingo said. The library has a $24 million annual budget.
Reach Hinshaw at (803) 771-8641.