Libraries run the gamut: Study reveals wide range of tax rates

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A recent study by Levinson's office revealed that library property tax rates imposed on homeowners in 2005-06 vary from an average in Long Beach of $166.73 to Lakeview, where residents pay an average of more than $600. West Hempstead falls somewhere in the middle with residents paying an average of more than $275. Levinson also pointed out that his study revealed that homeowners in the Lakeview and Roosevelt public library districts pay more to take out a book than they do for police protection.

Since the amount of commercial property in a community affects the share of property tax that a homeowner is obligated to pay the library district, Levinson has proposed that a percentage of the commercial property tax base be shared by districts in each of Nassau's three towns, Hempstead, North Hempstead and Oyster Bay. Levinson said that would help lower a homeowner's portion of the property tax burden for libraries in communities like Lakeview, Roosevelt, Hewlett-Woodmere, Freeport and North Merrick, which all have very small business districts.

Levinson also encouraged all library boards of trustees to establish a countywide commission to work with representatives from the New York State Comptroller's Office, the Department of Education, the Legislature, and towns to create a new system of funding libraries that would be a model for counties throughout the U.S.

An example of commercial properties benefiting one community more than another, according to Levinson, is Uniondale, which has the 10th-lowest tax rate in the county. Levinson said its low library taxes compared with neighboring communities are due in large part to the commercial taxes generated by the Roosevelt Field Mall, which is in East Garden City but within the Uniondale library district.

Forty-three of the 52 libraries Levinson studied are run by local school districts, with the other nine considered a special town district included on the general tax bill. Some Nassau County villages like Malverne, East Rockaway, Lynbrook and Valley Stream do not have tax rates for their local libraries, and instead fund the facilities through the annual budget for the municipalities, which Levinson sees as advantageous for taxpayers. There are also some small districts, such as Millbrook, South Lynbrook-Hewlett and North Lynbrook, that do not have their own facilities but contract for library services in a community.

"I think the way the villages do it is the way to do it," said Levinson at a Jan. 25 press conference in Mineola.

One of the nine special districts run by the Town of Hempstead is Lakeview, where voters approved a $1 million bond to reconfigure an old school building into a state-of-the-art library facility four years ago. Lakeview Library president Michael Alexander said the district has the second highest tax rate because it has to pay off the bond, and lacks commercial property in the small area in West Hempstead and the Malverne school district. Alexander said he is hoping to see the library's third floor and two-thirds of the second floor rented out in order to bring in revenue that would ease the tax burden of Lakeview residents.

The Hewlett-Woodmere Public Library also faces the challenge of a low commercial tax base and paying off a bond approved by voters in 1995 to renovate and expand the facility, which, according to the Nassau Library System, offers the most square feet of library space per capita in the county. "The dilemma of the situation is when you spread that tax base out, you will benefit some but hurt others," said Susan de Sciora, director of the Hewlett-Woodmere facility. "The libraries are a very small part of a much bigger problem."

The Peninsula Public Library in Lawrence, which services District 15, has the fourth-lowest tax rate in the county, thanks mostly to large commercial businesses like the Costco Wholesale store in North Lawrence, which ease residents' tax burden. In contrast to their Five Towns neighbor in Hewlett-Woodmere, the PPL facility is the second-smallest in Nassau County in terms of square feet of library space per capita, according to the NLS, which also contributes to the low tax rate, according to Levinson.

"We do as much as we can with the money we have," said PPL president Joseph Fuller. "We try to maximize as much bang for the buck."

Fuller said he opposed Levinson's idea of library districts' sharing the commercial property tax base in the Town of Hempstead, since it reduces the revenue from the businesses in District 15. "It would kill us," said Fuller. "I don't see that happening anytime in my lifetime, so I'll let somebody else worry about it."

Levinson said that while he does not blame the individual libraries for the funding disparities, the institutions should be subjected to frequent and intense scrutiny by appropriate government agencies at the state and local levels to ensure that taxpayer money is being well-spent. "Given the fact that the resources of each library district can be shared by all residents within the Nassau Library System, any capital improvement project must be viewed globally to avoid unnecessary duplication of services and expenditures," said Levinson.

"It would be great to find a more equitable way to fund libraries and other taxing jurisdictions," said Gerald Nichols, who heads the Palmer Institute for Library Organizations and Management at LIU-C.W. Post. "There are inequities for all local taxing jurisdictions."

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