Vote will take place in May; Butterfield used same method
By Chip Rowe
Voters in the Garrison Union Free School District will be asked on May 20 to consider a request from the Alice Curtis Desmond and Hamilton Fish Library for $75,000 in continuing annual funds. If approved, the measure would add about $56 to the property taxes of a Garrison home assessed at $300,000, or 18.7 cents per $1,000 of assessed value. This would be in addition to the $81 (or 27 cents per $1,000) the same property owner pays each year to the Julia L. Butterfield Memorial Library in Cold Spring following a similar referendum passed in 2006 by Philipstown voters.
The Desmond-Fish trustees voted at their annual meeting on Oct. 19 to pursue the vote after projecting a $76,000 shortfall in next year’s $580,000 budget. If approved, the money would be collected each year by the school district, which includes parts of Putnam Valley, and appear as a line item on school tax bills. The Butterfield assessment currently appears as a line item on Philipstown tax bills.
The board’s action is permitted under a 1995 New York statute, Education Law 259, which allows most local libraries to ask voters directly on municipal or school ballots to approve funding. The statute was signed into law in 1995 by then-Governor and longtime Garrison resident George Pataki, who praised it as a way for citizens to have “a direct voice in their government.” If the referendum passes, the law does not allow voters to reduce or eliminate the funding, only to increase it.
The Garrison district requires 25 signatures to add a funding question to its annual budget and election ballot, which library board member Carol O’Reilly said she will have in hand well before the petition is given to the school board, probably at its Nov. 6 or Nov. 20 meeting. The presentation is largely a formality, as state law does not allow the district to prevent a vote. “It’s not up to them,” says Carol Donick, who has been director of the Desmond-Fish library since 1996. “But of course we want the process to be as smooth and comfortable as possible.” The law requires the district to cover any costs associated with the vote and, if the measure passes, collect the $75,000 each year, which would be kept in a separate account and dispensed at the request of the library board.
Butterfield pursued a slightly different strategy in 2006 to secure $276,000 annually from Philipstown taxpayers, which accounts for most of its operating budget. (The library also receives about $30,000 from Putnam County and $25,000 from fundraisers and investments.) Rather than partner with the Haldane Central School District for a vote, the library gathered the 380 signatures required by the law to put its request on the town’s November 2006 ballot.
“To do what Desmond-Fish is doing, we would have had to dissolve Julia Butterfield’s will,” which established the library in 1925, explained director Gillian Thorpe. “It was very important to us to keep the will intact, especially after what happened with Butterfield Hospital, where it was dissolved” as a controlling document.
Donick says there were informal overtures to Butterfield to share the revenue collected from Garrison residents through a donation to Desmond-Fish but that the Butterfield board “didn’t feel that was a possibility.” Thorpe, however, says the issue only came up as a suggestion from a community member and never would have happened even with a formal request, citing Garrison endowment (which totals about $5 million) and the difficulty of giving money collected from taxpayers to support for one library to another. Butterfield “serves all of Philipstown, including Garrison,” she says, adding that she fully supports Desmond-Fish’s effort to secure funding from taxpayers.
It seems only a matter of time before every library in New York that can under the law will ask taxpayers directly for funding. Desmond-Fish is one of just seven libraries of 66 in the Mid-Hudson Library System that has not yet done so. The MHLS encourages its members to use the law, providing guides and sharing voter education material from successful campaigns, including Butterfield’s. “Some libraries, such as in Brewster and Carmel, were reluctant” to ask taxpayers for money, says Thorpe. But when the recession hit, and town boards reduced funding in some cases to zero, they reconsidered, she says. “Libraries offer free access, but they aren’t free.”
In Butterfield’s case, Philipstown each year had given the library $125,000 as a gift and one year promised $150,000, Thorpe says. When the extra $25,000 didn’t materialize, it caused havoc with the library budget and prompted the board to investigate how to secure guaranteed funds.
“The library was dying, even with $125,000 from the town,” Thorpe says. “You can’t run a library on that, and there was always the possibility they would pull it back. When I became director in 2000, our book budget was $3,000 a year. We couldn’t afford to be open. Once we had the money, we were able to add nine more hours a week, the number of items borrowed jumped from 8,000 to 65,000 annually and we grew 1,000 percent in the number of cardholders.”
The Butterfield funds were not easily received. After the 2006 vote, then-Supervisor Bill Mazzuca and the Town Board, along with some residents of Garrison and Continental Village, claimed it had not been properly publicized, noting that only about half of the 4,096 people who went to the polls that day cast a ballot on the measure (the referendum passed 1,086 to 973). The required legal notice had only run one week in the Putnam County News & Recorder, rather than the required two, which the board said nullified the results. Butterfield countered that, regardless of the error by the Putnam County Board of Elections, the library had run a full-page ad in the PCNR on the second week. “Clearly the notice requirement was met,” Thorpe says.
When the board continued to refuse to provide the library with more than its usual $125,000 gift, Butterfield sued. State courts repeatedly ruled against the town, but Philipstown appealed each decision. As the library’s legal bills topped $60,000, Thorpe said, the Butterfield trustees proposed a compromise: They would forgo the extra $151,000 in 2007 if the town began providing the full $276,000 in 2008. (Cold Spring and Nelsonville contributed funds prior to the vote but not after, Thorpe says, as it would amount to double taxation.)
“I think Mazzuca and the board didn’t think the referendum would pass and so they didn’t fight it,” Thorpe says. “But the money has allowed the library to thrive, and we have a good relationship with the board now.” Thorpe notes that seven years have passed since the referendum and that the Butterfield board is evaluating if or when to ask voters to increase the funding.
While Butterfield relies on taxpayers, the Garrison library receives only about 5 percent of its budget from public sources, including $11,000 from Philipstown and $15,000 from Putnam County. Its main source of income is investment income from its endowment. The trustees limit annual withdrawals to 6 percent of the average of its values over each of the previous five years. The allotment is $296,000 for 2014, or about half the projected budget.
Much of the remainder of operating expenses come from fundraisers. The used book sale in August raised $16,000 this year, or most of the $20,000 spent annually on books. Other events such as a luncheon scheduled for Nov. 17 with Gary Knell, CEO of the National Geographic Society and former CEO of National Public Radio, bring in about $165,000. The library received bequests in 2012 and 2013, “but that’s not something you can count on,” Donick said.
The library also has been hit with unexpected expenses, Donick said, first for extensive flooding damage to its basement after Hurricane Irene and $40,000 this past summer to replace a leaking underground heating oil tank.
The Desmond-Fish director is hopeful the referendum will be approved. “Libraries give the public an awful lot for the amount of money invested,” she said. “If people had to buy copies of every book and DVD that is borrowed, it would cost millions. We offer programs and meeting space and job-search help. It’s very tempting to pull more from the endowment but sooner or later you will have a beautiful building with a collection of books but no money to staff it or heat or cool it.”
Local Library Funding
|Town||Population||Public Funds||Gifts||Fundraising||Investment||Late fees||Total*||Per capita|
*Some revenue categories excluded
Source: Mid-Hudson Library System (2012)