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Wauwatosa library, in budget crunch, eyes fee increases

Oct. 3, 2012

Wauwatosa Public Library Director Mary Murphy said this week that she is likely to seek an increase in library fees and fines after a Budget Committee meeting last week at which aldermen issued a strong statement of support in favor of the move.

The Wauwatosa Public Library is governed by an independent board that would have to approve any increase.

The basic late fee of 10 cents a day hasn't changed in 17 years, Murphy said, and even at the current rates, it is an important source of revenue, bringing in an estimated $89,000 for this year, about 4 percent of the facility's budget.

City Finance Director John Ruggini said that even 25 cents would probably be less than the rate of inflation over the period, but Murphy said a more modest increase is likely - perhaps 20 cents a day - meeting revenue needs without creating a disincentive to borrow from the library.

Cutting isn't easy

Library funding was the most-discussed item on the last night of the Budget Committee's deliberations on city spending and revenue last week. The library attracts 400,000 visits a year, it's the busiest library in Milwaukee County in terms of items checked out, and it is, in the words of Alderman Donald Birschel, "one of our most important departments … the face of the city" for a large number of people.

It is hurting.

"I think we have constrained this budget beyond what our constituents wanted," Alderman Peter Donegan said. The quality of the collection has declined, Murphy agreed, under questioning by Donegan.

The rising popularity of eBooks, paying for print books, balancing the collection and budget constraints set against the rising fees of the county library system are some of the most important challenges Murphy is faced with.

The library is unusual among city departments in that its budget is fairly simple. It is required, essentially, to fund to building-related bills, employees' compensation and benefits and the purchase of books and other materials. Cut the budget, and what will suffer? Not the building. Not the people. But the mission to improve its collection.

"There aren't a lot of moving pieces there," said Alderman Craig Wilson, chairman of the Budget Committee. "Soft costs" in city departments with more complexity are easier to reduce. In the library budget, "the only thing you can do is hold off on buying new books," he said.

Support welcome, needed

Budget Committee member Donegan floated a suggestion that library funding might be added to the levy, but, without a specific target, the idea was dropped. The committee did agree to look for surpluses as the budget year commences.

"I thought the discussion was very, very supportive of the library. I was so happy to hear that. … They asked probing questions that are on target about eBooks, for instance. Obviously, I'm pleased," Murphy said.

Since 2009, wages have risen little at the library, and fringe benefits have declined. Spending on office furniture and equipment has dropped to zero. But operating expenses have risen steadily -13 percent since 2009.

"Over the past couple of years there have been increases in the charges to the library from the (Milwaukee County) Federated Library System, so the library's budget over the years has gone up. Virtually all of the increase is due to contracts that we have no control over; the book budget itself has been flat for a long time," she said.

Payments to the county system have approached $50,000 a year, she said.

The Milwaukee County system provides essential services to the library, including cataloguing of new books; buying subscriptions to databases, such as, for example, Standard & Poor's; access to the Online Computer Library Center, which connects libraries and library collections; software automation and maintenance; ecommerce services; an Internet line; eBooks; and other inter-library services.

The eBook dilemma

While eBook sales in some markets are exceeding sales of print books, they are a difficult issue for library directors. As committee chairman Wilson pointed out, if a library buys a book printed on paper, it owns the book and it continues to be an asset. EBooks, though, are not held indefinitely.

Murphy said the library would spend about $10,000 for eBooks - a small fraction of what it will spend on other materials, mostly paper books, but also DVDs, CDs and other items.

EBooks remain "a new sales model that has to be worked out, and we're just not there yet," she said. Legal fights over price fixing, and wrangling between Amazon and traditional publishers, have resulted in a situation where some publishers won't sell to libraries at all, and one publisher bumped the price of its eBooks "from $15 to $45 overnight."

"Public libraries are all about letting multiple users, readers, share a book," Murphy said. "And that's what the book companies are protesting. They want to sell - they want to sell you and me, and my children, each one of us, one copy."

While publishers do not object to selling a print book to a library, the eBook world has not accepted it, she said.

On the issue of the budget, she noted that doubling the price of fees wouldn't double the income from fees - people will change their behavior in response. Fee revenue is already declining because the county system has begun sending email reminders to users with books that are coming due. Still, the added revenue, if approved, will be some help.

"I do think it's likely," she said, of fee changes, "and we'll make sure that we'll give plenty of advance notice to people."

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