Miami-Dade County

Survey: Miami-Dade County residents value public libraries, but would they pay more for them?

Miami-Dade County residents truly love their libraries, but they don’t necessarily want to pay more taxes to fund them.

Those are the findings of a new poll conducted on behalf of county government, which is trying to find ways to save the public library system from deep budget cuts. Ninety-five percent of respondents who use the library and 72 percent of non-users said libraries add to their quality of life. Eighty-three percent of respondents disagreed with a statement calling libraries “outmoded, obsolete and no longer necessary.”

Yet support for increasing the property-tax rate — likely the only way to grow the libraries or even keep them intact — was inconsistent, according to the survey by Behavioral Science Research, a Coral Gables-based firm.

Forty-four percent of respondents said they would be OK with a tax-rate hike, with 20 percent undecided.

Robert Ladner, the president of Behavioral Science Research, called the support “soft.”

“It is a very vulnerable area,” he said this week to Mayor Carlos Gimenez’s task force examining the libraries’ future.

The results mirror a national study published earlier this month by the Pew Internet & American Life Project, which found that 95 percent of Americans 16 and older consider libraries important. Ninety percent said the closure of their local library would have an impact on their community.

But Pew also found that respondents visited libraries less frequently in the past. The study did not ask about library funding.

Nearly half of Miami-Dade’s libraries, 22 of 49, faced closure this summer when Gimenez and the County Commission kept this year’s property-tax rate flat. In the end, the politicians spared the libraries and their 169 employees who would have been laid off by raiding one-time reserves.

With those reserves depleted, the county is looking at a shortfall of about $20 million next year to fund the libraries at the same level as this year, unless the tax rate goes up.

Gimenez has said he has no intention of proposing an increase. The commission could override him with nine votes, but six on the board face reelection in August. A couple of them have said they would not back raising the rate.

The mayor has asked his 17-member task force to come up with recommendations by February for a long-term survival plan for libraries. The panel met Wednesday to consider the conclusions of four working groups that focused on different aspects of the library system.

Among their ideas: Marketing libraries as event or collaborative work spaces. Offering printing, photocopy and passport services. Opening library coffee shops. Selling books in neighborhoods without private bookstores. Asking voters to sign off on a temporary tax-rate hike.

The funding work group noted that the libraries’ financial troubles began about six years ago when, during the economic recession, Florida lawmakers tightened state funding for local governments. It didn’t help that county leaders have slashed the library tax rate at the same time. It has gone down nearly 55 percent since 2009.

The only way to expand the library system, opening new branches and restoring staffing levels and hours of operations, would be to significantly hike the tax rate, said work group member Tony Lopez, director of the community and leisure department in the town of Miami Lakes.

A smaller increase would help maintain most services yet still require a marketing campaign to persuade residents, he added.

“The funding work group felt that while raising the millage may be a sensitive issue, a marginal millage adjustment would only result in a minimal impact to property-tax payers,” Lopez said.

In his survey, Ladner found that support for a tax-rate increase was strongest among non-Hispanic white respondents and weakest among Hispanics. Families with children who used the library showed stronger support than those where no one in the household did.

Commissioners have set up a voluntary donations program so residents could send money in addition to their taxes to county departments. Miami-Dade sent a yellow donation envelope to property owners with their tax bills.

Between Nov. 1 and Dec. 4, the library had received 247 donations totaling $6,573.49. The library budget: about $50 million.

Ladner surveyed 601 people, 64 percent of them women and 36 percent of them men, which Gimenez questioned as potentially skewing the results. The margin of error for the poll, conducted by telephone between Nov. 22 and Dec. 11, was 4 percentage points.

About 58 percent of respondents were Hispanic, 19 percent non-Hispanic white and 20 percent African-American or Haitian. That breakdown slightly underrepresented Hispanics and slightly overrepresented non-Hispanic whites, according to 2012 Census figures.

Among Ladner’s other findings, which he will present to the mayor’s task force in more detail next month, were that the vast majority of users go to the library to borrow books or DVDs — and not to use the internet or other equipment. The second most-popular use is for a quiet place to read, study or play.

“We can talk all we want about virtual libraries,” Ladner said. “The fact here is that people who come to the library come because they want to take out something that they can have in their hand.”

And in many neighborhoods, he added, the library is a safe haven for children.

“I don’t care what kind of internet access you provide,” he said. “When kids need to go to a quiet place to hang out, to do homework and to avoid the streets, this is where the library is predominant.”