Autumn on Lake Audobon

Autumn on Lake Audobon
Autumn on Lake Audubon, Photo by Alison Kamat

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

The Public Library as Economic Engine: Florida taxpayers receive more than $10 in total benefits for every dollar they invest.

The State of Florida has studied the return on investment (ROI) in its public libraries three times in the past decade, the latest in 2013.   In its latest report, Taxpayer Return on Investment in Florida Public Libraries--2013, it identifies $10.18 in benefits for every one dollar invested as shown in this table.  

 

Here is how the Executive Summary describes the latest official Florida state report:
Florida’s public libraries are a vital asset in supporting educational, recreational and business needs  across the state. The state’s 555 public library outlets promote lifelong learning, including emergent literacy support for children, parents and caregivers, as well as provide public service hours dedicated to technological instruction. They are a hub for those researching entrepreneurship or evaluating  commercial goods and services.
Additionally, many people enjoy the library’s relaxing atmosphere, recreational materials, events for the  public, or help obtaining information for their personal or family needs.  The study that follows assesses the taxpayer return on investment in Florida public libraries. It is an update to a previous study conducted in 2004 and updated in 2008. Table 1 provides a comparison of the return on investment findings from each of the three studies. As the table indicates, Florida public libraries have provided increasing returns on taxpayer investment over the last nine years. Between 2004 and 2013, Florida public libraries have generated an additional $3.64 in economic return for every $1 of public funds invested. More importantly, the Total Net Benefits to Users, the value library patrons believe library services provide them relative to what it costs to use those services, has nearly doubled from $2.33 billion in 2004 to over $4.51 billion in 2013.  
In order to determine this value, this year’s update utilizes comparable methods as the previous studies to assess the economic and social value library patrons place on Florida public libraries. The study utilizes an analytic approach known as contingent valuation, which provides a means of valuating  non-market goods and services through both quantitative and qualitative methods. At the core of the study, Haas Center researchers administered multiple surveys throughout the state to collect a variety of data regarding public library use. These data are used to provide economic estimates for User Investment, Cost to Use Alternatives, Total Net Benefit To Users, Community Economic Benefits, Lost Use Benefits and, ultimately, Return on Investment. 

Furthermore, the study measures the social value library patrons place on public libraries along several dimensions. For instance, library patrons are asked to consider the different ways they use the library, such as with children, to meet personal or family needs, job or work-related needs as well as for educational needs.  Additionally, several questions were designed to explore perceptions of the library and its value within the community.
The following study presents key findings, including the Return on Investment, economic impact and survey results conveying the social value of public library services. Overall, the Florida taxpayer’s return is calculated to be $10.18 for every $1.00 invested during 2013. In other words, taxpayers invested $496 million but received approximately $5.55 billion in economic benefits.  
As the summary suggests, the study utilized multiple telephone and internet surveys reaching more than 4,000 respondents across the state of Florida.  One of the more important results from those surveys is how Floridians use their public libraries.  As showing below, the key uses are checking out a book, reading materials in the library, and searching the online catalog.
 

An even more important result of this study is the importance people put on using their public library.  Here is how the report puts it:
The Importance of Library Services. Though the patrons survey was designed to measure the significance of library services to the greater community, one question in particular asked respondents to rate how important libraries were in meeting their needs. In Figure 9, a combined 84% of Internet  respondents said that the information provided by the library was either important or absolutely essential in meeting their personal needs. A similar pattern was found in the household telephone survey, in which 76% reported that library services were important or absolutely essential in meeting their personal needs. Additionally, nearly half of all respondents (both Internet and telephone) felt that utilizing public library services helped save them either time or money. 
 

Even after a decade of major slippage due to cuts in budget, staff, and holdings, the number of FCPL cardholders was an estimated 457,661 in FY 2014--41% of the County's population.   And those cardholders and others visited FCPL regional and branch libraries more than five million times during the year.  We can reasonably expect that at least three-quarters of these cardholders and other users think the public library is an important part their lives, but so far that has not deterred shortsighted budget cutters on the Board or the County staff. 

More importantly, this study (like others in this series) indicates  the failure to grow investment in our County library system at the same rate other County spending has grown continues to cost the County economically.  Assuming the spend types of economic benefits would would apply in spending on the Fairfax County Public Library System, we can evaluate how the County's decision to undermine its libraries has hurt its economy.   Specifically, in FY 2004, the County disbursed $26.5 million from its total $2.6 billion in General Fund expenditures on our public libraries.  In FY 2014 the County estimates indicate it spent the same amount on its libraries while its overall General Fund disbursements increased by more than 42% to $3.7 billion. 
  • If FCPL spending had increased at the same rate as overall County spending, FCPL would have spent $37.7 million on its libraries last fiscal year.  
  • Spending $37.7 million on FCPL would have generated $383.8 million in economic benefits for the County.
  • Instead, the County spent $26.5 million, generating $269.8 million in economic benefits.
As a result, the County lost some $144 million in County economic benefits in FY 2014--and quite possibly more than a half-billion dollars in taxpayer economic benefits over the last decade--by not maintaining FCPL's share in the County budget, much less increasing it. 

The Florida report's conclusion reaches a similar conclusion and, more importantly, notes the cost of diverting public library funds to other uses:
The 2013 Taxpayer Return on Investment in Florida Public Libraries study has demonstrated that  Florida’s public libraries contribute substantially to the economic vitality of the state.  Florida taxpayers  receive a significant return for their investment: for $1 of taxpayer money invested, public libraries provide $10.18 in economic benefits throughout the state. Moreover, the results of the REMI model simulation demonstrated the long-term economic impact of reallocating FY 2012 public library funds across other government sectors.  In this scenario, it is estimated that Florida’s economy would lose $6.57 billion in Gross Regional Product and nearly 193,000 jobs.
In short, it suggests that Fairfax County has been pursuing an economically--and potentially politically--unsound policy by not investing more in the Fairfax County Public Library system for a decade.  Fairfax County can no longer afford to waste its increasingly scarce tax dollars.  We need to invest in our libraries now for the sake of our County economy. 

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