Saturday, May 24, 2008

But they never told you the price that you pay...

The Howard County Library has launched a new website. Because I like to read, I like the Howard County Library. However, I do not think the case has been made that the library system is a good use of tax dollars. If the citizens of Howard County want to spend their money on books, they are free to do that. They certainly don't need the county government to make that decision for them.

I find it irritating that many people seem to take it a priori that the library system is a good use of public funds. The library lets you borrow books, movies and surf the internet for free. Big deal. I read books regularly but I do not set foot in the library but maybe once a month. I visit Borders or some other bookstore weekly- often during times when the public library is closed. Some people might prefer the County to offer free pizza or free coffee rather than free media privileges. Others would no doubt prefer some other good or service. No one, including me, would argue that subsidized pizza or coffee is a good idea. But what makes reading, renting movies/CDs or surfing the internet any more worthy of a taxpayer subsidy? Only the self righteousness of readers, I suppose.

Additionally, libraries are not cheap. The Howard County government threw nearly $13 million dollars at operating the library system in FY 2007. Keep in mind that this $13 million figure reflects only a years worth of “operating costs” and therefore does not include the costs of the physical buildings that house the libraries. The costs of the land, bricks and mortar are extremely significant. The capital budget (pdf) indicates that $72 million dollars will be spent on libraries over the next 5 years (mostly spent at the Miller Branch, Savage and Elkridge locations). To put this in context, to build and operate libraries over the next 5 years the library system will burn up over $135 million- enough resources to replace Mount Hebron High School one and a half times. I am not sure how many library cardholders use the library regularly (some stats can be found here), but I suspect that a few heavy library users are getting a great bargain at the expense of everyone else. It would be telling for a “per taxpayer” cost to be estimated and published in the annual reports released by the library, along with some statistics of what percentage of people that have library cards use them, and how often they do so.

Are libraries the best use of public funds? I don't think the case for libraries is as cut and dry as most people think.

11 comments:

jim adams said...

I visit the Miller library as much as once a week, and I am plesently surprised at how busy it is.

I also spend time at Barnes and Noble,and love having a pile of books,an over stuffed chair, and a cup of coffee, and again I am surprised how busy B & N's is.

I don't know the revenues generated by B & N, nor the expenses,so I dare not compare the two, but my gut feeling is we are getting our monies worth with our county libaries, but you almost had me when you mentioned the logical choice of spending money on Mt. Hebron High School.

With all that said, I do believe that if we would stop playing politics, and set objective priorities the county would be much better off, of course that would mean that political careers would be shorter, and not as well financed so maybe we should forget that idea.

Anonymous said...

I agree. And ;lthe fire department too, if people want to put out fires, they can pay for their own fires out of their own pockets. And let them hire an ambulance, no reason the public ought to be paying for these parasites.

FreeMarket said...

Anon, public safety has nothing to do with libraries. Your argument just took a stroll down the slippery slope.

Ernest de Cugnac said...

Actually Anon, you may just be right. If we did pay to have our own fires put out, it would be a whole lot cheaper - and we'd be a *lot* more safety conscious.

Zinzindor said...

An estimate of "getting our money's worth" would be a pretty difficult and imprecise exercise. I wouldn't want to try to assess a monetized benefit for the suite of library services.

But the question may simply be a diversion. The relevant questions instead may equity and efficiency.

Efficiency: It's hard to make the argument that a library is an economic public good. Consumption is rival and excludable, and there wouldn't need to be free rider problems. There is no market failure here, in other words, and therefore the publicly provided service is likely to be less efficient.

Equity: A significant number of library patrons are higher income. (A Pennsylvania state survey found that about a third of users earn over $50k/yr). Why should low-income taxpayers be compelled to subsidize library services for others?

A lending library would ideally function as a private service, with perhaps a subsidy available to lower-income users. The Howard County library seems to cost about $64 per user per year; that's an eminently reasonable user charge.

Anonymous said...

Freemarket - I agree 100% with you. It seems that there is far too much dependency on government to provide every imaginable service or product to anyone who has a "need" for it. There are certainly enough private sector avenues that people have to obtain books, rent videos, etc.

I also have a real disdain for the taj mahal schools that are being built, all in an effort to wow the public. The cost could be cut drastically if the schools were built much plainer without all the fancy wasteful stuff.

You also touched on a very important factor in the "cost" of public facilities - the cost to heat, cool, clean, repair, or to even staff the facility with employees (teachers don't work for free after all), does not get adequate consideration when the politicos are trying to justify the expenditures to construct.

Anon - what a disingeneous comparison to make. Not even close to the point being made by Freemarket.

Anonymous said...

Freemarket - I agree 100% with you. It seems that there is far too much dependency on government to provide every imaginable service or product to anyone who has a "need" for it. There are certainly enough private sector avenues that people have to obtain books, rent videos, etc.

I also have a real disdain for the taj mahal schools that are being built, all in an effort to wow the public. The cost could be cut drastically if the schools were built much plainer without all the fancy wasteful stuff.

You also touched on a very important factor in the "cost" of public facilities - the cost to heat, cool, clean, repair, or to even staff the facility with employees (teachers don't work for free after all), does not get adequate consideration when the politicos are trying to justify the expenditures to construct.

Anon - what a disingeneous comparison to make. Not even close to the point being made by Freemarket.

Eludius said...

Though a proponent of smaller government, I believe the public library is a good thing.

Remember that the first public library in the U.S. was founded by Benjamin Franklin as a repository for important manuscripts and documents to be supplemented with classical reading. The library provides a valuable source of information.

Imagine if everyone had to buy those 5 books when you did that research project on the bald eagle when you were 10? I think as a society, it helps keep our costs down overall and allows us to share the knowledge is a centralized location.

I'm not sure if providing the public with CD's, DVD's, and video games counts as serving the public intellect.

Freemarket said...

It does not matter to me if the library system was founded by Ben Franklin or Pee Wee Herman- it cannot be determined to be a “good thing” since it does make some people worse off (those who do not use it). It is wrong for the county to decide for us how many and what types books we should buy with our own money.

I agree that it is efficient to share infrequently used items such as books, but we don’t need a publicly financed library system to do that. Heck, Netflix accomplishes that same goal with DVDs instead of books, and does so without a tax subsidy. Btw, I doubt there is a single kid that uses books rather than a google search to write a report. And even if they did, that does not mean that they need a +$135 million library system to do so.

Minks said...

Sooo,, what do you think libraries are for? Do you think they are for the individual or for the collective?

Hint: For the collective

...hence the tax funding.

Now,, bonus question,, why are they good for the country as a whole? This is a tough one, oh shopper of Amazon.com

Hint: An educated populace is a productive populace

Bonus Hint: A productive populace is a wealthy populace.

Super Bonus: A wealthy populace is a happy populace

And you are a smart fella, why don't you run the numbers and see what you pay per year for the library? Only count the taxes you pay now, no cheating.

Hint: about $3 a month.

Maybe you should spend less time watching SouthPark and more time reading economic theory.

Freemarket said...

Minks, my county government has budgeted to spend over $100 million to build and operate libraries over the next 5 years. So take your $3 a month figure and shove it up your sphincter, seriously. You have no idea what you are talking about. If you look at the libraries that are being built, they are not modest structures designed to help the poor move themselves up. County Executive Ulman has even said that he wants a “showcase” library- one that simply flaunts the wealth of our tax base.

Since you are a librarian, you are hardly unbiased. It’s easy to spend the money of others, is it not?