The Long, Sad Next Chapter

Ballot measure defeat begets “a 15-year problem” for Henderson’s libraries

I use the library. My 9-year-old son uses it, too. We can both recall many times enjoying an hour among the stacks giving an author a tryout in some tough-to-find Vegas Valley silence, all on the taxpayer dime.

Now, since Henderson residents didn’t vote for the first property tax increase to expand funding for the system since 1991, two libraries will vaporize rather quickly. By Nov. 21, the system’s Galleria Mall location will be gone and, as of Nov. 30, the 4,500-square-foot, but quite busy, Lydia Malcolm branch near Seven Hills will close its doors.

Other cuts to outreach services will also be seen. Homebound delivery to those without the means to make it to the library will be cut as well as various pre-literacy and family literacy programs. Yes, my son and now my 4-year-old daughter—tax-suckers that they are—dabbled in those latter services, too. Tom Fay, the Henderson Libraries executive director, hopes some coordination with the city’s Meals on Wheels program will salvage some of the homebound service. Going forward, he is trying to keep the new Heritage Park site, located in the park’s senior center, open, but he’s not offering any promises.

About $7 to $10 a year in extra property taxes for the average Henderson homeowner would’ve kept the city’s library system in its pre-November form. But the anti-tax side—led by Nevada Policy Research Institute, which called the library system “healthy” given the economy—won out. NPRI even hinted that the system was growing too fast anyway, with six libraries serving a city of more than 260,000 people. Nevada ranks 44th nationally with 0.79 libraries per 100,000 residents; states with better literacy rates, such as Maine and Vermont, dare to have more than 20 libraries per 100,000 people. Shame on them, say Henderson voters.

Despite the setback, Fay says he feels good about the effort his team and the Citizens for Henderson Libraries volunteer group put forth. “We did have 53,000 people that voted with us,” he says. “We were pretty realistic going in. I always said if I think I’m going to have a 50-50 shot [the effort lost 55 to 45 percent] at something I’m going to try. … We really left it all on the field.”

But the Henderson Libraries funding has eroded by about 30 percent since 2007 when it had a $9.6 million budget. Trimming hours was the first move, Sundays were completely cut in February 2008. In 2010, another seven hours were trimmed, and earlier this year, Mondays were cut entirely, too. The 103 full-timers on board in 2009 will soon number 71.

Some have weighed in on message boards saying library systems are dead, particularly with the popularity of e-books. Maybe they don’t have iPads in Vermont and Maine? Oddly, even locally, in a time when e-books are hot, Henderson’s circulation climbed from 1.07 million items in 2007, to more than 1.8 million today. Oh, and you can get e-books at the library.

For years, about 35 percent of the system’s funding came from sales tax and 65 percent from property taxes. During the recession, though, consumers cut spending, shifting the funding mix to a 75 percent reliance on property tax revenue, Fay said. But with home values still sagging, those revenues are already down 30 percent and expected to fall further.

Even with today’s talk of housing appreciation, Fay says volatile commercial property valuations mean the next budget will come in lower than the current one. And with a 3 percent property tax cap rate in place, replacing the lost revenue in better times will be a slow climb.

“We will continue to learn how to live within these means,” he says. “But we really see this as being a 15-year problem.”