As the rain fell steadily outside Tuesday morning, a maintenance worker was trying to dry out the carpet in the children’s corner of the Waldo branch of the Kansas City Public Library.
“Water seeping through here is a regular occurrence,” said deputy library director Joel Jones.
He added that the roofing in the building, which was constructed in the late 1980s, also needed to be replaced, along with a 25-year-old air conditioning unit and outdated bathrooms.
“It was designed to be a building that held books and typewriters,” Jones said.
But the library today does more than just store books. Jones said the library offers programs for entrepreneurs, computer training and basic internet access.
It's one of the reasons why Jones and several community leaders and library officials gathered Tuesday — to urge people to vote Nov. 6 to increase the library property tax levy by 8 cents.
Revenue from the library levy accounts for nearly 90 percent of the funding for operations, according to library officials.
The levy hasn’t been raised in 22 years. Officials estimate the increase would generate an additional $2.8 million annually and cost the owner of a $150.000 home $22.80 per year.
So far, there is no formal opposition to the measure.
Library director Crosby Kemper said the library’s revenues have flattened out over the past decade, largely, he alleged, due to property tax abatements granted to developers by the city. Crosby says the library system has missed out on approximately $30 million since 2007.
Supporters of tax increment financing, a popular development tool, argue the library has a voting member of the board that reviews such projects.
More than books
Gwen Grant, president and CEO of the Urban League of Kansas City, said it's important for the library to expand services for the people with the most need. She used the example of many residents who live in Kansas City’s economically distressed areas, where the library is the only way to get online.
“For access to broadband, for certainly books, but it’s also an institution in our community, they operate like community centers, these are gathering places for people,” Grant said.
A significant portion of money from the levy increase would go for major renovations to the Waldo branch and the Northeast branch. It would also base a refugee and immigrant services program at the Northeast branch, where there is a growing population of new immigrants.
Courtney Lewis, who runs media relations for the library, said they’ve been able to get by for the last 22 years and still provide excellent service. But Lewis told KCUR in an email that without an increase in the levy, the system would face tough decisions about library hours and basic building maintenance.
The library also said it would have to scale back technology updates.
Carlton White says he first started coming to the Central branch when he was a shy 13-year-old in need of a computer to do schoolwork. He said library staffers introduced him to the digital media lab program, where he learned about 3-D printing.
“I’ve now grown to learn to sharpen my craft and I’m currently enrolling in college,” said White, who is now 20 and hopes to become a 3D designer.
He also said the people who work at the library have become like family.
“You could probably ask some of the Central employees there … and you ask them about me, they’ll say that they raised me, and they did,” White said.
Lisa Rodriguez is a reporter and the afternoon newscaster for KCUR 89.3. Connect with her on Twitter @larodrig.