Pine Plains library to seek crucial budget increase
From left: Library director Alexis Tackett, intern Hannah Johnson, and library assistant Annie Mallozzi at the Pine Plains Free Library. 
Photo by Elias Sorich

Pine Plains library to seek crucial budget increase

PINE PLAINS —  Come November, voters in Pine Plains are likely to see a question on the ballot asking them to increase the budget of the Pine Plains Free Library. The library plans to ask for $166,900 through a mechanism called a Chapter 414 initiative, after a chapter of education law passed in 1995 that allows libraries to pursue voter-directed funding.

This will create a special library tax and assure that the library will get a certain amount of funding each year that is not subject to increase or decrease by the town. And if the library needs to increase its budget again, it will have to run another Chapter 414 initiative to do so.

Currently the library receives a budget of $99,500 from the town of Pine Plains which, after grants and fundraising, puts its total budget at $148,000. That amount, according to both Alexis Tackett, director of the library, and Claire Gunning, president of the library’s board of trustees, is inadequate to meet operating costs and community demand.

Already, the library is having to make use of funds set aside for emergencies, planned Americans With Disabilities Act-accessibility improvements, and community space upgrades to meet its operating costs. For this year alone, Tackett shared the library had to use $30,000 of that money to keep afloat.

Unless the library is able to secure an increase in funding, Tackett and Gunning indicated that it will have to undergo drastic changes to its hours, offerings, staff and programming in as little as three years. What that would look like, according to Tackett, is a reduction to 20 hours per week, becoming a single-staff library, and a slashing of programming.

These changes would result in the library’s failure to meet the New York state minimum standard, as well as the loss of its connection to the Mid-Hudson Library Association, both of which grant the library access to resources, databases and other amenities.

In the current phase of its initiative, the Pine Plains Free Library is collecting signatures of support, which must total at least 108 in order to make it to the ballot. To Gunning, at this stage, supporting the initiative is primarily about supporting the democratic process.

“Signing this does not guarantee you’re voting yes, it’s just saying that we get to vote on the question,” said Gunning. “But the hope is that we don’t break everybody’s heart. If the town keeps funding us in the same way, we won’t be able to continue to do our jobs. That’s the reality.”

A common necessity

Far from an uncommon step, according to Rebekka Smith-Aldrich, executive director of the Mid-Hudson Library System, over half of the libraries in the Mid-Hudson system use the Chapter 414 mechanism to get their funding. Those initiatives are successful roughly 95% of the time—and Smith-Aldrich has advised over 100 of them during the course of her 25 years at Mid-Hudson.

“I really worry about the libraries that don’t have voter directed funding,” said Smith-Aldrich. “We really see that the libraries that don’t have [it], they just fall behind every single year. When they’re able to make their case directly to the voters, and say, ‘Look, this is what community demand is for the library, this is how much it costs to do that work, do you find that reasonable?’ 97% of the time voters say, ‘Yeah, that makes a lot of sense to us.’”

The Pine Plains Free Library is one of only two libraries out of 26 in Dutchess County that do not have voter-directed funding. And though the library is not permitted to spend any money in pursuit of the initiative, putting its budget to a public vote represents a significant commitment of time and energy on the part of the all-volunteer board, and other volunteer groups like the Friends of the Pine Plains Library.

If they aren’t successful this year, Gunning stated they will just have to try again the next.

Regional success stories

The Clinton Community Library in Rhinecliff is close to Pine Plains in terms of its size and demographics, and in 2017 and 2022, it pursued voter-directed funding initiatives to roaring success. According to Carol Bancroft, director of the Clinton Community Library, those efforts were “a lot of work for the board and staff” but deeply necessary, as the library had previously gotten its funding through a “patchwork quilt” of grants, town funding and fundraising.

What that patchwork method meant for the Clinton Library was funding insecurity—when grants were depleted, the library would take a serious hit to its programming capacity.

Receiving $115,000 in 2017 and $149,800 in 2022 through voter-directed funding, the Clinton Library was able to ramp up its programming, build support and goodwill in the community, and solidify its role as a gathering space for the town. In 2017, 60% of voters voted “yes” on the initiative, and in 2022 that support increased to 73%, an indication of the success the community has viewed that first initiative as having.

To Bancroft, the Chapter 414 process is both both labor-intensive, and yet ultimately fulfilling: “As a director, it can be frustrating. But it’s also very democratic. You put it to your community, and if they see the value, they say yes.”

Rising costs

The necessity for a library to pursue a Chapter 414 initiative can arise from any number of regional challenges, but it often boils down to the common factor of rising costs. Though the town of Pine Plains increased the library’s budget in 2017, 2019 and 2022, the increases were relatively small (from $96,550 in 2021 to $99,500 in 2022)—and in the intervening time, the Pine Plains Free Library has seen a dramatic uptick in usage.

If that alone weren’t enough, the rising cost of inflation, wages and price-gouging from publishers on digital assets have all contributed mightily to the Pine Plains Free Library’s funding insecurity.

To purchase a physical book to be used in-perpetuity, the cost for a library runs at about $14. For a digital copy of that same book, that cost is often closer to $60, which might make sense if that digital copy could be used by multiple people at the same time. But that $60 buys only one digital copy. If a library wants to lend that ebook to more than one person at a time, it has to purchase another $60 digital copy.

And books are just the beginning of a library’s digital asset woes—programs like Microsoft Word and Adobe as well as access to academic magazines or databases are often only available through yearly digital subscriptions. Moreover, costs for physical materials have skyrocketed.

As an example, the library’s copier, which is in need of replacement, cost $2,500 before the pandemic—now the same model costs $6,000. Ink for that model has also gone up, from $300 to $600. According to Tackett, these inflated costs stack up quickly and mean that the library’s current funding is essentially “the same equivalent funding we were at in 2013.”

While the voter-directed budget increase is directed largely at stabilizing the library’s funding sources, Tackett also indicated that the amount that’s being asked for is intended to increase the library’s offerings to meet community demand.

“If it passes, what people will see is the increase in hours that they’ve been asking for, they’ll see an increase in materials that they’ve been asking for, both digitally and physical, and they’ll see more programs and services offered,” said Tackett.

By way of hours, Tackett’s hope is to increase from 32 hours per week to 40 and to keep the library open on Mondays, bringing its open days to six per week.

What good are libraries, anyway?

If you were to think of a library, chances are you might imagine the libraries of yore, stacked with books and silent reading. And while books have remained central to libraries, as times have changed, what a library must offer a community has evolved.

Along those lines, to Smith-Aldrich, they are perhaps better framed as centers of information: “I think there’s a common fallacy that that the role of libraries is changing. But I honestly think that the role of libraries has always been the same, which is to be an educational portal for folks to understand the world around them. The problem is how information has been monetized in our society, and libraries have been on the frontlines of defending people’s right to access.”

Beyond that, to Tackett, a library is also a place where community member can come to get access to centralized resources in times of needs: “If somebody comes in and says ‘my house burned down last night, and I don’t know what to do,’ I can probably list four organizations right off the bat to get them in contact with. Libraries are often the first safety net for people, which can start funneling them into all the other economic safety nets out there.”

To Gunning, the ways in which a library can serve as a foundation to a community are often connected to those basics of survival.

“Food insecurity exists in our town,” said Gunning. “People might still have a house over their head, but they’re worried about feeding their children. People can’t always afford to go and just get what they need, whether it’s mental health, or help filing a request, or leaning how to use their cell phone, or getting access to internet. During the pandemic, people would come and park in the parking lot at the library to use the internet. Those are real services that people need.”

Gunning also emphasized the degree to which a library is not only a resource for those in need, but also an amplifier for community. The Pine Plains Free Library provides a wide slate of programming, from story hours for children to tech assistance and tech literacy training, and any of the other 300-plus programs offered annually. When those programs exist, Gunning stated, people come together and communities remain connected.

The board of trustees are available to discuss the proposed Chapter 414 budget initiative and take signatures. They’ll keep collecting signatures until they get past the 108 mark, with a safety goal of 200.

If they’re able to secure the requisite support, the library will then begin a public information campaign, which will culminate in a public vote on the November 2023 ballot.

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