The City of Omaha wants more property tax money for the Omaha Public Library system from homeowners in unincorporated Douglas County.
The Douglas County Board is saying no — at least so far.
The city, which is planning a library construction and renovation program beginning with a new southwest branch outside city limits in 2020, wants property owners outside city limits to help pay capital expenses. Currently, they’re taxed only for library operating costs.
“We are against it,” Douglas County Board member Mary Ann Borgeson said. “We are not in the library-building business.”
County Board Chairman Chris Rodgers echoed that. So did Clare Duda, who helped write the initial library funding agreement and who, like Borgeson, represents people who pay the special library tax.
City and county administrators are renegotiating an agreement through which Douglas County levies a library services tax on people who own property in unincorporated areas of Douglas County. It affects about 85,000 taxpayers, those who own property that is not within the city limits of Omaha or any other municipality in Douglas County.
The tax money collected helps to support the Omaha Public Library and other municipal libraries in the county. Residents of unincorporated Douglas County can use the Omaha and other libraries for no additional cost. The special tax will raise $2.34 million in 2018, Douglas County Finance Director Joe Lorenz said. About 95 percent of that will go to the Omaha Public Library, he said. The remainder will be split among Bennington, Ralston, Valley and Waterloo city libraries.
In 2017, the library tax rate was .02671. So the owner of a $150,000 home in unincorporated Douglas County paid $40.07 in library tax this year.
The agreement between Douglas County, the City of Omaha and the Omaha Public Library Board was first struck in 1997 as a way to help fund the Omaha Public Library and to provide free library cards to unincorporated Douglas County residents. It was extended in 2011. It expires Saturday.
The County Board voted Tuesday to extend the current agreement for 90 days so negotiations can continue.
City finance and legal officials had proposed that the agreement be amended to include capital costs. That would increase unincorporated Douglas County taxpayers’ cost by about 6 percent next year. For the owner of a $150,000 home, the tax would go up $2.40, from $40.07 to $42.47.
“But you start building new libraries, and that could go up 30 to 40 percent,” Lorenz said.
City officials have not decided what their next step is. Mayor Jean Stothert said that Omaha Public Library Director Laura Marlane had asked to meet with Douglas County Board members to make sure they understand the library system’s facilities plans and how they serve people in the county.
City Finance Director Stephen Curtiss said the city has time, given the 90-day contract extension.
“Maybe they don’t want a library out in the county,” Curtiss said, referring to the proposed new southwest branch.
Stothert has penciled in $10 million for that branch in the city’s 2020 capital improvement program. That’s a list of projects the city intends to do in future years, matched up with planned funding sources.
The new suburban library is part of a facilities master plan the Library Board approved in February. The next priority is replacing the W. Dale Clark Library downtown with a smaller branch at or near its existing site.
In turn, a larger main library would be built along Dodge Street between Crossroads Mall and 90th Street. That project would be addressed in 2025.
If the city insists on adding capital costs to the Douglas County bill, the board will let the agreement expire and work something out with the other municipalities, Duda said.
“We’re not changing it,” he said. “We pay our fair share.”
*** Correction: An earlier version of this story used miscalculated figures to describe how much tax homeowners pay.