Fort Smith library tackles funding woes

AR-161009870.jpgThe Fort Smith Public Library is taking measures to keep moving forward in the face of financial setbacks.

Fort Smith Public Library Director Jennifer Goodson said although the library is not short on creativity and information on how to better serve the public, its most prevalent problem is its funding. The library budget for 2016 is $2.7 million, which is derived from a number of sources, including property taxes paid by Fort Smith residents, state funding, fines, fees, grants and 6 percent of Fort Smith’s share of the Sebastian County sales tax.

However, Goodson said the library, as a publicly funded institution, has little control over the amount of money it brings in from the public.

“In the business world, in the retail world, you can sell a new product, or you can open up a new product line, or make more widgets or whatever the example might be in the business world,” Goodson said. “In the library world, there’s not anything that we can do like that, generally speaking, that will make us more money.”

Another funding challenge comes from the increasing sophistication and expectations for libraries among library customers.
“Libraries today are expected to provide more than just books on the shelves, and we certainly believe that,” Goodson said. “So computers and technology and online resources and eBooks and all of those things that our library customers want and deserve are expensive, and so it’s challenging to try to meet those increasingly sophisticated requests.”

Goodson said these financial shortcomings and others have affected the library’s ability to provide the resources it wants. In terms of cutbacks, it attempts to make adjustments that leave as little public impact as possible.

“There comes a certain point where you can’t do as much of that anymore because you’ve already cut and minimized and cut and minimized,” Goodson said. “A few examples over time, we have discontinued some of our regular programs that we have done previously. We have just discontinued them because we didn’t have staff time or staff resources to devote to them. We have cut some positions. We’ve not had to do any layoffs, but when we’ve had open positions, we’ve just opted not to fill them as a way to save some funds that were going to toward staffing, to be able to reallocate those to other things.”

A cutback made last year, Goodson said, was significantly reducing the library’s collection of reference books.

Increased fines

Library Board of Trustees member Ben Shipley said another method the library has attempted to curb its funding shortages is through increasing fines already in place. This began Dec. 1, 2015, and includes overdue fees on items such as books, DVDs and Interlibrary Loan materials, as well as the replacement fee for lost library cards and the fee for Internet computer use for noncardholders.

Goodson said according to library staff, these changes significantly increased the money taken in from fines after they were enacted. However, the boost reportedly leveled off in the months since, which Goodson attributes to customers being more mindful of incurring the raised fines.

Another example of a fine in place at the library is a nonresident library card. Goodson said although library cards are free for Fort Smith residents, those who do not live in the Fort Smith city limits must pay $35 a year to use the library.

“That is an effort to, more or less, make up for what the average Fort Smith resident pays in support for the public library,” Goodson said.

Goodson said the fee did not increase with all the others.

Additional help

The library also relies on donations to free up its public money for other items. Two essential supplements in this regard include the library Endowment Trust and Friends of the Library. Endowment Director Cindy Long said the endowment provides financial support for the library, which includes funding for special projects and programs not in the library’s operating budget.

“This past year, we helped with special donations for funding the children’s services, all the resources, which is $45,000,” Long said. “In the past, with private donations, we built Dewey’s Cafe that’s in the library. We funded that.”

Long said the trust also perpetuates its endowment through donations, gifts and other sources so it never spends more than 5 percent of it. The endowment is currently at about $4 million.

Goodson said the Friends of the Library is a support volunteer organization that provides volunteer and financial support to the library. It hosts certain events, such as two annual book sales and the recent Chocolate Festival on Sept. 25, and the money derived from these events, membership fees and other sources is granted back to the library every year.

“Our summer reading program, the prizes and the programs, the presenters that we have, is all underwritten by the Friends of the Library,” Goodson said. “Most of the refreshments that we have at library programs and events are paid for by the Friends of the Library, and then they also provide one-time or special funding for things like DVDs or print collections, books and things that we want to add to the library.”

Friends of the Library also pay for other resources such as TumbleBooks, which are eBooks for children.

Moving forward

Goodson said the library is looking for ways to better serve the community. One such idea is lending out of Wi-Fi hot spots to library cardholders. The library is currently arranging service for the three hot spots it has available, and the hot spots are planned to debut in the next couple of months.

“We know that there are still people that don’t have Internet connectivity where they may need it,” Goodson said. “And that doesn’t necessarily mean at home. It could mean at a meeting space, or it could be for a group project. … We know just from our contact with our customers, and people out in the community that there are people that don’t always have Internet at the time and the place that they need it.”

Goodson said a significant Wi-Fi upgrade also took place at all four Fort Smith library locations earlier this year.

The library is also in the process of upgrading its website with enhanced features and a more contemporary look. Goodson said the project is still in its preliminary stage and is being funded by the Library Endowment.

Shipley said the library is a critical component of the Fort Smith community due to the variety of services it provides for all people.

“… If you think of every institution in the community, the library really is the community’s front porch,” Shipley said. “… It offers (its services) at a very nominal amount for the cost of a library card. … The whole number of services I think is wonderful, and it’s done so without regard of whether someone is without a lot of financial resources, or whether they’re a wealthy person, nobody cares. It’s open to everyone, and I’m very proud about that. It’s a wonderful community resource that the community supports, and I’m proud to be a part of it.”

Author: Thomas Saccente
Twitter: @thomas_timesrec


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