Silence may be golden in a library, but in today’s increasingly competitive fundraising arena, a raised voice may gather more gold, Katonah library officials are coming to believe.
“We frankly haven’t howled until now,” Virginia Lanigan, president of the Katonah Village Library, said in an interview last week, suggesting a more aggressive posture in the library’s pursuit of increased town funding. “We need to howl.”
While acknowledging in a later email the many initiatives competing for town support, she asserted that Bedford’s “underfunding of Katonah Library indicates that its libraries have dropped quite a few rungs on that priority list.”
Earlier in the week, Lanigan and representatives of Bedford’s other two libraries had pressed the Town Board to increase the total aid it was giving each organization this year—$636,227, a $12,000 rise over last year. Lanigan, for her part, sought a $195,000 bump in the annual contribution, to $831,000.
Supervisor Chris Burdick promised only a “concerted effort” to improve library funding. “I understand...that it looks like we’re awash in money,” Burdick told the library representatives, “but I assure you that we’re not.”
Armed with slides and statistics, Lanigan and Michael Dwyer, Katonah Library’s co-treasurer, addressed the board at its Feb. 4 work session. In an hour-long presentation—twice the allotted time—the library board officers detailed what they depicted as a decade-long decline in the town’s financial support since 2009.
In that year, the board’s contribution—$636,919—represented 84 percent of the library budget. Over the years, however, library expenses have continued to mount. So, although this year’s town allocation, $636,227, is virtually unchanged from a decade ago, it now covers only 67 percent of library spending, which has risen since 2009 by 25 percent.
Dwyer attributed the spending increases, an average of about $15,000 a year, to an inexorable rise in the cost of providing high-quality services. “We have a revenue issue, not an expense issue,” he maintained. “If you can’t do anything about your expenses, you’ve got to go looking for revenue.”
The library is looking at one place specifically: Bedford’s surplus cash, the tax dollars raised but not spent and carried on the books as a “fund balance.”
Burdick, responding to a slide that shows a burgeoning, multimillion-dollar surplus, said, “There is no question that our fund balances have grown over the years, but they’ve grown in tandem with the overall increase in our budget.”
The town’s key finance official, Comptroller Abraham Zambrano, in an email late last week, said that the town continues to tally 2019 expenses, but that for now the current fund balance is “just over $7 million.”
State guidelines suggest that Bedford, with a 2020 budget of about $41 million, should keep about $6 million to $6.8 million in reserve.
Lanigan, while acknowledging the need for a “healthy fund balance,” termed her requested funding “peanuts” next to the cash reserve. “We’re not asking for millions,” she said. “We’re talking hundreds of thousands.”
Recalling a different era in municipal finance, Lanigan said, “It didn’t used to be this way [for Bedford’s three libraries]. For many, many years...the town gave them adequate funding.”
But in New York State, 2011 was a watershed year for municipal finance. A cap on property tax increases, recommended by Gov. Andrew Cuomo and approved that year by the Legislature, has ever since fundamentally altered the way in which thousands of local budgets—for towns, villages, schools, fire and many other special-use districts—statewide are created.
Wildly popular with homeowners and others for strictly limiting property tax increases, the cap also diminishes town spending options. Before the cap, in the century’s first decade—when town funding, library officials said, was “normalized”—budgets came together based on residents’ perceived need/desire for town services. Board members coupled that with their best political sense of what the traffic would bear in terms of tax increases and drafted a spending plan.
That all changed in 2011. Now, every budget discussion starts with a finite number, established by the state, defining exactly how much a jurisdiction like the town can spend without violating the cap ceiling. In some years, that figure has been a negative number, meaning a town or school district, say, would somehow have to spend less than it did the previous year.
Going into 2011, responding to nationwide economic woe, the town had already slashed all library funding by 10 percent and continued those reduced contributions for the next two years. “We have never recovered from that cut,” Lanigan told the board.
Even after the emergency cutbacks stopped in 2014, library funding in the cap-constrained town budgets did not approach the levels of 2009 and 2010 until this year.
As a result, Lanigan said, the library rolled out of 2019 with $72,000 more in expenses than its budget could pay, a shortfall plugged only by dipping into cash set aside for capital expenses. “That’s what we’ll have to do again [this year],” she said.
Outside of the town’s contribution, the library’s only other revenue options consist of an annual appeal, spring and fall galas and a book sale.
Lanigan sees little chance of closing the financial gap through additional fundraising. “The population of Katonah has not materially changed in many years and probably won’t for many more,” she told the board. “And that’s the entire pool of people that we can go to for money. We’re now going to them four times a year, asking for a handout.”
Perhaps in response to that reality, the Katonah Village Library, a private nonprofit since its founding 140 years ago, plans to meet with a library funding specialist to explore potential advantages in becoming a publicly funded institution.