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Trustees look to strengthen Ogdensburg library’s finances

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When the Ogdensburg Public Library Board of Trustees holds its upcoming annual winter retreat, the conversation will focus on one topic that its members agree is too expansive for their monthly meeting: the financial future of the library.

At the board meeting on Thursday, library Director Wayne L. Miller laid out several proposals from raising revenues to offering another public referendum like the one that as defeated in 2011.

“An hour and a half is not enough,” said board Vice President Mathew P. Duprey.

The library’s outlook for this year is far from carefree. Its $582,712 budget has a city contribution of $532,712 that is $13,000 less than requested. Also missing is $11,502 in St. Lawrence County funds.

“There’s a lot to consider here,” said Cathy C. Piche, the board’s chairwoman. “There’s a lot to think about.”

Two years ago, the library proposed a $527,245 Ogdensburg City School District tax levy in a referendum. Viewed as a means of eliminating the dependence on city funds, it was dismissed by a telling 626-356 margin.

Mr. Miller took notice.

“It was a very sobering experience,” he said. “People saw it as another tax.”

Referendums, as Mr. Miller explained in his monthly report to the trustees, have a mixed record of results.

“There are many instances of this model which led us to go on the school ballot two years ago,” he said. “In some instances, like Potsdam, it took more than one try. In other instances, like Long Lake, Rome, and Albany, the library decided that the investment in purchasing the services of specialized professional services was critical. Our first foray was disheartening to some, but was also a great learning experience. It helped generate community support both during the campaign and since.”

Another idea is to start charging more for services and features and charging for those that are now free.

“To a small degree, Ogdensburg Public Library and most libraries are already employing this model,” Mr. Miller said in his report. “We charge for printing, copying, fax services and are currently adding facility rental. Current pricing is designed to recover the basic cost of the service.”

He said some libraries, like the Canton Free Library, charge for DVDs. The fee in that case is $1.

“Ogdensburg Public Library currently loans between 10,000 and 15,000 DVDs per year,” he said. “On one hand, people tend to value things to the degree for which they pay for them. On the other, there is a strong ‘free public library’ brand built upon collective community funding to provide services and materials that are equally available to all. Would it become even more difficult to justify the appropriation of tax dollars for a service which charges its customers?”

It’s something to think about, Mr. Miller told the trustees on Thursday.

“I can see it as a revenue stream,” he said. “A buck here and a buck there. It might not be a bad thing.”

The library’s $500,000 endowment is also a key player is shaping the library’s financial stability.

“Currently, Ogdensburg Public Library derives about five percent of our budget from the general endowment,” Mr. Miller said in his report. “Increasing that endowment to the $3 million or $4 million range would generate 30 percent of our budget, a substantial portion. This would bring stability to the oscillations in government and other funding.”

Ms. Piche said all possibilities should be explored if the library is ever to be self-sustaining.

“Financial stability is everything,” she said.

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