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Library considers tax for growth 

click to enlarge PARK EXPANSION: Roberts sees this ground as a spot for a children’s library near the LR Zoo.
  • PARK EXPANSION: Roberts sees this ground as a spot for a children’s library near the LR Zoo.

 The Central Arkansas Library System is considering asking taxpayers to finance an expansion of library services and facilities.

The library, which already has enough petition signatures to hold an election, would place two measures on the ballot. The first is a 15-year, $32 million bond issue for capital improvement. It would include $5 million for books and two new libraries: a $5 million facility in Otter Creek and a $10 million branch south of Interstate 630, near the Little Rock Zoo, as a part of the War Memorial development project. The War Memorial library would be a children's library. Passage of this measure would also finance the completion of the Main library's fifth floor, as well as smaller improvements to the Dee Brown, Fletcher, McMath, Terry and Williams libraries.

The second measure envisions a permanent $1.4 million-a-year increase for operational costs. The library would use the money to run the new libraries, establish a books-by-mail program for the homebound, add databases and Internet access, and increase investment in youth services across all libraries of the system.

The library's board of directors meets Thursday, Aug. 23, the publication date of this week's issue, to decide whether to bring the proposals to a vote. Bobby Roberts, director of the library system, said he will recommend placing the measures on the ballot. He expects the board to go along with that recommendation.

If the proposals move forward, taxpayers will be asked to foot the bill through a property tax increase — one mill for capital improvements and a half-mill for operations. Since a mill equals roughly $20 in taxes for every $100,000 worth of property, Roberts estimated that the owner of a $100,000 home would pay $30 a year for the first 15 years; after the full mill expires, the annual cost to the same homeowner would be $10.

There is currently no library in the Otter Creek area near the junction of Interstates 30 and 430. A number of Otter Creek-area residents already benefit from libraries closer to downtown workplaces, Roberts said; the new facility would give them easier access to the library system. Otter Creek is within the city limits, so the subdivision would be included in any property tax raise. Roberts also pointed out that property tax paid by corporate employers of Otter Creek commuters will account for part of the increase. According to numbers provided by the Pulaski County Treasurer's office, 64 percent of the city's general fund comes from business taxes.

Roberts envisions the children's library south of 630 as a part of the larger War Memorial Park development project. That project is still under study and no firm proposal has been aired yet.

Roberts hopes that the library will be located somewhere on a block of city land that is bound by 630 on the north, 11th on the south, Monroe on the east and Van Buren on the west. This is currently an open area that serves as a little-used entrance to War Memorial Park. Some envision development there as a stepping stone to revitalization of residential neighborhoods on the east and west. In recent years, immediately to the south, the former Highland Court public housing project — once a notorious crime magnet — was torn down and replaced by new housing.

The library would be linked to War Memorial Park by the Jonesboro Street overpass, which would allow children to access the park from the library.

In settling on the War Memorial Park location, Roberts took the racial and economic divide across 630 into consideration. “If the city is going to develop to the north, it should also develop to the south,” Roberts said at a public meeting last week, where about 20 people had gathered to discuss the proposal. “This ought to be thought of as an interracial area.”

The political division was sharply illustrated in the recent election on mayoral powers, when virtually every precinct south of Interstate 630, most of them majority black, voted against the proposal. The voting in those areas has been similarly polarized in some other elections, including races for School Board.

Asked if the city's languor in completing War Memorial Park development might make voters hesitate to approve the new children's library, Roberts acknowledged that it might. While Roberts stressed that the “development [of the park] is incidental to the [library] project itself,” his overall presentation made it clear that he would like the library to play a key role in a larger public space.

The Central Arkansas Library System has grown rapidly over the past few years. Roberts says circulation is up 33 percent since 2002. Computer use is up 61 percent in the same period, while database use is up 311 percent.

The library system has conducted $51.5 million worth of improvements since 1993. Those include book additions, construction of the Main, Fletcher, Williams, Brown, McMath and Terry libraries, and renovation of buildings for the Arkansas Studies Institute.

According to Roberts, around 28 percent of voters will reject the measures sight unseen because they are categorically opposed to tax increases. The library's task will be to run an effective campaign to convince other voters to approve the project. Roberts estimates that the library would spend $65,000 to $75,000 from its endowment on the campaign.

If the measures are placed on the ballot, the vote will be held in November.

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