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Special election will decide Central Arkansas Library System’s funding

The main branch of the Central Arkansas Library System in Little Rock. The library is hoping voters will support a 0.5 mill increase in the city's property tax.
Central Arkansas Library System
The main branch of the Central Arkansas Library System in Little Rock. The library is hoping voters will support a 0.5 mill increase in the city's property tax.

The Central Arkansas Library System’s funding is on the ballot. A special election will be held on Tues. Nov. 9 with the library system asking for funding by proposing a 0.5-mill increase in property tax.

It would raise the city’s rate of property tax to 3.8 mills. A mill is one-tenth of a cent.

“It would work out to about $10 a year for every $100,000 of property that you own,” said CALS Executive Director Nate Coulter. “The average house value in Little Rock, we’re told by the county, is about $150,000 so we’ve been saying the average increase in your taxes for the average property owner in Little Rock would be about 14 to 17 dollars a year.”

2007 was the last time CALS had an increase in the operating tax. In the last 14 years, CALS has added two new library branches, a theater, and expanded three different branches. The millage is needed to close a gap between operating expenses and projected revenues. Coulter said CALS had intended to put this issue on the ballot in 2020, but the pandemic prevented special elections.

Previously, this gap was filled by using bond proceeds or bond money to cover expenses.

CALS Communications Director Tameka Lee said in an email, “The costs of popular digital materials like e-books and audiobooks are outpacing the ability to purchase them. In 2015, the cost of digital books was $242,000, or 12% of the materials budget. Last year it rose to 27% of the budget ($580,000). The system solved part of this problem for years by using borrowed money to pay for 75% of the two-million-dollar annual cost of acquiring books. This is not sustainable.”

Coulter added that the pandemic increased the need for digital and audio copies of books for patrons. “That’s the cost of digital technology,” Colter said.

In 2020, using borrowed money was no longer an option and the library system had to make several cuts, including losing about 8% of employees, removing some long-term benefits for employees, and moving some services in-house.

“We have, I’m embarrassed to say, 63 employees who are making less than 13 dollars an hour at the library. And that’s not a good commentary on our community, if people are making more money at Costco or Amazon than they can make at the public library,” Colter said. “So we need to correct that and some of this money that we hope the voters entrust in us will go to address that issue.”

According to the executive director, if the 0.5-mill tax passes, CALS hopes the board will return to the ballot next year to lower the portion of their tax that goes to capital improvements. He said this would eliminate most, if not all, of the cost increase CALS is asking for in November.

Without the funding, CALS will have to make more cuts and offer less activities and qualified employees. Coulter said he is optimistic that the community will continue their support for the library system but worries that voters will not make it out to the Nov. 9 special election.

Remington Miller was an intern at KUAR News as part of the George C. Douthit Endowed Scholarship program. She later worked as a reporter and editor for the station.