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Supporters of new library say sales tax is best payment option

It might be the last item on Fargo's Nov. 2 election ballot, but supporters of a half-cent sales tax for a renewed public library system hope voters don't overlook the issue.

Door to door for the library

It might be the last item on Fargo's Nov. 2 election ballot, but supporters of a half-cent sales tax for a renewed public library system hope voters don't overlook the issue.

The 18-month tax, listed on the ballot as an amendment to the city's Home Rule Charter, would raise about $12 million to pay for a new main library and two new branch libraries.

"The biggest challenge is letting the voters know that the Home Rule Charter amendment is the library tax," said Virginia Dambach, chairwoman of Citizens for Better Libraries. "The way we're trying to pose that is 'Last on the ballot, best for Fargo.' "

Citizens for Better Libraries was organized to promote the library tax after the City Commission voted 3-2 in late August to put it on the ballot.

The Library Board proposed the vote when a request for $1.6 million to start a new south library branch wasn't included in the mayor's proposed 2005 budget.

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"We had less than 60 days to get this off the ground," said Betty Kerns, Library Board chairwoman.

The citizens' group, working strictly from donations, printed fliers and members spoke to local civic organizations and radio shows. Newspaper ads also have appeared, as well as a Web site, www.newfargolibrary.com .

"It's hard to know for sure how this is going because nobody stands up and says, 'No, don't do that,' " Kerns said.

It is unclear who in the community might support or oppose the tax come election day, because no opposition groups have formed.

The tax needs approval from 60 percent of the voters to pass. The idea for the tax came from City Commissioner Mike Williams, elected in June. He is also responsible for the Home Rule Charter provision requiring a supermajority for new sales and use taxes. Williams led that charge while he was a private citizen.Volunteer Jim Puppe has been going door to door to promote the library tax. He said he wants to give back to the library, which he used extensively for genealogical research.

Puppe, a retired Veterans Administration executive, said he'll spend several hours a day promoting the tax until the Nov. 2 election.

On a recent afternoon, Puppe canvassed streets near his north Fargo home.

He knocked on door after door, pressing pamphlets on teenagers to give to their parents, and talking to the adults for a moment.

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"I'm sold on it," John Tietgens told Puppe.

Others say they'll think about it.

"I really haven't decided," Tom Archbold says after Puppe leaves. "I don't like new taxes. I just don't know."

Dambach, a former Library Board member, believes the sales tax is the best way to pay for expanding library facilities. Raising the money through property taxes would require bonding and paying interest, she said.

"Doing it as a sales tax means that the library, when it's built, is paid off. This is really a much better deal for the citizens of Fargo," Dambach said.

Library officials point to studies showing the Fargo library is below average compared to similarly sized cities in terms of the number of books, the amount of space, computer terminals and parking spaces.

"We're behind, not only in the region but in the state," Dambach said. "We've got the most people and the fewest books."

Minot has a library of 40,700 square feet, Director Jerry Kalpf said. It serves about 36,567 people.

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Bismarck's library has about 70,000 square feet, said Director Tom Jones. It serves an area of 69,400 people.

Grand Forks has a library with about 37,400 square feet, said Director Dennis Page. It serves about 66,109 people.

Fargo, with a population of 90,500, has a 31,000-square-foot main library.

At the same time, library use is on the rise, sales tax supporters say. The number of borrowers increased from 37,000 in the first half of 2000 to 51,280 in the first six months of this year.

Fargo City Commissioner John Cosgriff, who voted against putting the amendment on the ballot, doesn't deny the need for a new library.

"My quarrel is not with the need," Cosgriff said. "I think it's recognizable."

Instead, Cosgriff opposed the action because it came in the middle of the budget process. He doesn't believe officials have had enough time to plan for how the new buildings will affect the city's finances.

"My concern was, and remains: Do they have a complete plan put together, and have they anticipated all the aspects of the expansion plan?" he said.

Cosgriff also said he was not sure how the city would pay for the additional operating costs of a larger library system.

Fargo Library Director Charles Pace said operating costs would have to be paid through the city budget, although they could be subsidized with private funding.

Cosgriff also argued there haven't been enough discussions about alternatives for expanding the libraries, such as working with school districts or the county.

"There wasn't a lot of discussion," he said. "There wasn't the community involvement and sort of the brainstorming sessions."

City Commissioner Linda Coates said the library has been studying its needs for years. "It was unclear if it was ever going to be able to be addressed, certainly not on the scale that this sales tax will make possible," she said.

If the tax is approved, library officials would initially focus on expanding the south branch into a $3 million, 15,000-square-foot building, preferably the former Sullivan Middle School, Pace said.

That phase could be finished in 2006, he said.

A $9 million main library and smaller $500,000 northside branch would come next.

Library officials want to build a 45,000-square-foot main library downtown, Pace said. Both the downtown and northside projects could be finished in 2008.

The northside branch is included in the library's facilities plan but is not mentioned in the wording of the proposed amendment to the Home Rule Charter.

"It's also a much smaller project than the other two that we're talking about," Pace said.

Besides the $12 million raised with an 18-month sales tax, private fund-raising could generate about $2 million to $3 million to pay for other costs and to create a fund for long-term operating expenses, library supporters say.

Officials don't yet know exactly where the buildings would be, or what they would look like.

"We can't even really start looking at anything until we get money in hand," Kerns said.

The proposed tax would begin on Jan. 1 and end on June 30, 2006.

It would be similar to the half-cent Cass County Jail tax approved in 1999 by more than 70 percent of the voters. The tax was expected to last four years but was retired early.

Former North Dakota Gov. Bill Guy of Fargo, who supports the proposed library tax, said people often say officials will find a way to keep the tax.

"I tell them that's what elections are for," Guy said. "If you don't like it, vote it off."

Guy believes a new library would raise the city's quality of life, which could help attract business.

He remembers, as governor, eating lunch with four other governors and President Nixon in a conference room at the Fargo library.

"As I think back, I wonder what he thought of Fargo with this tiny little library at that time." Guy said. "He didn't mention anything, but I wonder what he thought."

Readers can reach Forum reporter

Andrea Domaskin at (701) 241-5556

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