Roomier library is a taxing issue

Chapel Hill tries to balance economic reality, need for a $16 million expansion

Staff WriterSeptember 20, 2008 

  • 14.34: Chapel Hill library materials circulated per capita -- more than three times the state average.

    $2.36: Cost to taxpayers of each book checked out from the Chapel Hill library -- $1.52 less than the state average.

    879,484: Books checked out from the Chapel Hill library in a year.

    0: DVDs available for checkout.

    STATISTICAL REPORT OF N.C. PUBLIC LIBRARIES, JULY 2006-JUNE 2007

— In 1986, a report said the Chapel Hill Public Library needed to be 68,000 square feet to serve the college town's voracious bookworms.

But by the time the new library off Estes Drive was built in 1994, there was enough money for only 45,000 square feet. "Already we were starting in the hole," Library Director Kathleen Thompson said.

Library supporters thought they'd finally get the space they needed for the most heavily used library in the state when voters approved $16 million in 2003 to expand it. Mayor Kevin Foy threw some cold water on that last week.

At a Town Council meeting, Foy said expanding the library likely would mean a tax increase, though it's not yet clear how much. In addition to paying down the debt, it would cost about $1 million a year more just to run the larger library (about 65,000 square feet).

One penny on the current tax rate generates $582,000, though that could change when the county revises property values this fall.

Town leaders took heat this year for increasing the property tax rate by 11 percent. Foy asked residents whether they're still willing to pay more for a larger library. The question drew a concerted e-mail effort from library supporters.

"The [library] is a fantastic resource for the town and its citizens, but the present building is much too small for the demands being placed on it," wrote Barbara Moran, a member of the library board. "I think the majority of Chapel Hill citizens think that the expansion is a 'done deal' and are happy to see the plans moving forward."

Several residents wrote to say they are struggling in a bad economy and expansion should wait.

"We live in a two-story salt box, very basic, less than 2,000 square feet, and we're paying over $4,000 a year in local taxes," resident David Feddeman wrote Foy. "Enough! Now is not the time for $16 million in additional library space."

Foy said he supported the bonds but wants to make sure people know what expanding the library will mean before budget season rolls around next year.

"The momentum is toward building the library," he said. "But now is an appropriate time for people to weigh in."

Thompson said the expansion is desperately needed.

The library doesn't have room to handle DVDs, unlike most of its counterparts around the state.

Bookshelves rise to the ceiling, there are no quiet study rooms, and larger gathering spaces are inadequate for many public functions.

"It's not just, 'Gee, we want to go crazy here and build the Taj Mahal of libraries,' " Thompson said Wednesday. "We're trying to get up to what we were told we needed 20 years ago. And the longer we wait, the more space we need."

matt.dees@newsobserver.com or (919) 932-2005

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