This story was originally published in The Flatwater Free Press.
The city’s main library will be different. The operation and funding structure of the library system — even if it grows to 13 branches — will remain the same.
The library’s share of the city budget is down from previous years. Still, mayor Jean Stothert said she is confident the city would operate a multi-million dollar new facility, potentially paid for with private money, without relying on philanthropic dollars.
Last week, Stothert announced the main W. Dale Clark library will move to a smaller location at 1401 Jones. A new main library is expected to go between 72nd and 90th Streets.
The library board approved a partnership with stakeholders including Heritage Services, a nonprofit that has taken charge of planning, fundraising and developing a series of local civic capital projects.
Some previous Heritage projects are managed by the quasi-governmental Metropolitan Entertainment and Convention Authority. No one who spoke to the Flatwater Free Press supported a similar arrangement for the new facility.
Rachel Jacobson, president of Heritage Services, said the organization is interested in developing the building and donating it to the city.
“Historically the library has been funded primarily by taxpayers,” Jacobson said. “We’re not suggesting that change at all, although obviously it hasn’t been able to have the kind of investment that it needs to get to the next level.”
The library’s share of the city’s operational spending fell under 2% in 2019. That’s the fourth time that’s happened in the past 25 years — and second in the past five.
That doesn’t include 2020, when COVID-19 forced a library shutdown and drove the percentage to a record low.
“A tenth of a percent up and down in the city budget makes a big difference to the library system,” said Stuart Chittenden, a member of the library board from 2008 to 2014.
Gary Wasdin, executive director of the library system from 2009 to 2015, said funding has long been bare bones.
“No one in Omaha’s history has ever really done a whole lot for the library, ” Wasdin said. “For almost any mayor, about the best you can say is they didn’t cut the budget.”
Stothert said the budgeting process is about prioritization.
Her top priority has been public safety.
“I’ve added over 100 police officers because we needed more than 100 police officers,” she said. “But that doesn’t mean public works or planning or law or library is not important — they are, but you do have a finite amount of revenue.”
She pointed out that the library budget has regularly grown since she’s been in office, calling it “appropriately funded.”
Stothert said she generally meets funding levels requested by department heads.
Library director Laura Marlane confirmed that the mayor provided funding for necessary services identified by library management.
Since 2012, the library’s appropriated budget has grown by 41.3%, and is set to be $17.7 million in 2022.
During that same period, the police budget grew by 43.9%; the fire budget by 81.7%.
A 2019 federal survey that looks at per capita library funding showed Omaha, at $29.72, was below the state average of $38.61 and national average of $41.90.
Omaha ranks third to last among the 15 municipal library systems in Nebraska and neighboring states with over 50,000 population, a comparable funding and administrative scheme.
Only the city libraries of Aurora, Colo. and Wichita, Kan. spent less per capita.
Former city finance director Carol Ebdon, now a UNO School of Public Administration professor and Friends of Omaha Public Library board member, said the possibility of private funding could lead to even less prioritization in the city budget.
She, along with co-authors, published a study speculating that “libraries that are departments of cities or counties may find that as private donations increase, elected officials are more likely to shift local tax funding from the library to other vital services such as public safety.”
Stothert said that hasn’t happened.
“The city views funding of its public libraries as a priority and we are in no way avoiding spending on them,” she said. “We’re not relying on philanthropic dollars to fund the library.”
“As long as I am mayor, I am confident there [will be] no private dollars at all for Omaha Public Library operating expenses,” she said.
Jacobson, at Heritage, said it’s still early. But plans call for a continued commitment — led by the city — to keep the new main branch well-maintained.
“Hopefully you do a great project, you raise a lot of money for it, and then the philanthropic community continues hopefully through the library foundation. But you need to see increased city funding as well,” she said.
For decades, the Omaha Public Library Foundation has raised philanthropic money for book purchases and special library projects, such as the summer reading program.
Wendy Townley, executive director of the foundation, said it will grow to support whatever any new development would need.
The foundation raises about half a million dollars a year.
“The foundation would likely have to grow based on the needs of a 13th library being added to the system with regards to needs in that specific library,” she said.
She said the foundation board and Heritage leadership had conversations about potential partnerships. That includes a merger of the Community Information Trust, the nonprofit responsible for operating private digital library Do Space.
“If a building project gets approved for a new library, and Heritage Services has a significant lead role in that, I would fully expect us to work in lockstep with any entity who is stepping into that role, along with the city too,” Townley said.
Wasdin, the former library director, said the foundation’s contribution has only covered a small portion of library spending. Calling the library “majorly underfunded,” he has been a proponent of public-private partnerships in the past.
He was an early advocate for Do Space, and Heritage’s involvement in that project.
He also said, however, that the library is nothing like other Heritage projects because it’s a basic public service.
“Private money always comes with strings, and it’s a matter of [the library] deciding whether that’s acceptable,” Wasdin said.
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