The concept of the free public library is prevalent in the United States. Many people grew up with an idea of the library as a magical place where they could take home all the books they could carry without having to pay a thing.
Of course, libraries aren't free. Every book on the shelf, e-book downloaded and staff member helping someone costs money. Rather than a pay-per-use system, public libraries were founded as part of the collective good stemming from local tax dollars. Everyone pays into the system that provides shared services. It is an investment in our community, and as investors, we have the right to see returns.
Many conversations about the city and county budgets have surfaced over the past few weeks. These discussions are sometimes heated and emotional as we each push to have our voices heard.
Omaha's elected officials have the arduous task of creating a cohesive and comprehensive budget to serve the entire community, not just the loudest voice. This process can be a challenge and frustration, but it is also an important part of the democratic process. We have the right to share our views and thoughts on our community and its progress, as well as an obligation to listen to those of others.
I often hear friends talk (complain) about their property tax bill, but when I ask how their taxes are spent, most are unsure. For those interested, it's fairly simple to find out how their taxes are allocated. Visit the county treasurer's website at dctreasurer.org, look up any property, and learn.
For example, a homeowner in Tax District 100 with a home valued at $120,000 pays about $2,300 annually in property taxes. The City of Omaha receives $528, Douglas County receives $280, $269 goes to Omaha Public Schools and $1,031 goes to the Learning Community. The remainder is divided among various other agencies, such as Metro Community College and public transit.
How is the $528 for the City of Omaha used? The money collected pays for a broad range of city services through the general fund. It ensures that you have fire and police services when needed, maintains our streets to keep them structurally safe and cleared from snow, and provides great parks and recreation facilities to enjoy. A portion of the city's general fund, about $13 a year per person, pays for your “free” public libraries.
Of course, there is other money to help pay for libraries, too. Business taxes, sales tax and keno funds contribute toward all city services. In total, the City of Omaha spends about $26 per person on the public library. This amount is among the lowest spent on public libraries in the U.S.
Omaha Public Library operates efficiently to stretch funds, ensuring that branches are open during convenient hours, have a variety of books to browse and borrow, and provide access to resources that help people pursue jobs, research, entertainment and education. All Douglas County and Omaha residents can walk through the doors of Omaha Public Library and borrow resources, regardless of individual circumstances or finances.
Community members have been vocal about what they want from their libraries and are encouraged to continue sharing with library and city leadership. I also invite you to stop in to your local library branch or visit us online at omahalibrary.org to check on your investment. Maximize the value of your library card by borrowing a few books, or using an online resource like Consumer Reports. Find a tutor for help with your child's algebra homework, or attend a lecture or class. You'll find that your investment pays for itself in no time.
Gary Wasdin is the executive director of the Omaha Public Library.