Lost ticket revenue hurts library funding

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Capital News Service

LANSING — According to a 1964 state law, income from traffic fines are distributed to fund public libraries — to the tune of about $34 million in 2019 — but lower traffic ticket revenue is leaving libraries with insufficient funding.

“We’ve seen a steady decrease in both the number of citations written and the fines received from those citations since 2015,” said Matthew Saxton, the director of the Michigan Sheriffs’ Association.

Saxton said that in 2020 there was a significant drop in citations which meant a significant drop in revenue that’s used to fund libraries. 

The coronavirus pandemic and government stay-at-home orders resulted in a heavy decline in the number of drivers on the road, which in turn meant less revenue from tickets issued in 2020, Saxton said.

Under the law, the income from traffic goes to the county treasurers, who split it among public libraries in their county.

Montcalm County Treasurer JoAnne Vukin said her office received more than $252,000 from fines for July 2019 through June 30, 2020. That was down from $345,000 for the previous year and more than $380,000 the year before.

According to Mattie Cook, the director of the Flat River Community Library in Greenville, the loss of income from fines makes it more difficult to serve the community. In 2019 the library received $94,327 while the total for 2020 was only $70,241, Cook said.

“Especially in the public service, every cent counts, and when we’re seeing decreases in penal fines it makes a big difference to our bottom line,” Cook said. 

Services were cut, she said, and “we try never to do anything that’s going to have an impact on them, so a lot of times it just means we are doing more with less.”

According to Cook, the goal is to cut costs in ways that aren’t noticeable to patrons.

Cook said that in a normal year the library runs about 100 programs. 

“We are still going to do those programs — we are just going to come up with ways that we can do them, either trying to get lower rates from the providers or doing more of them ourselves,” she said.

Although the library is primarily funded by taxpayer dollars, Cook says that fines account for a large portion of its yearly budget.

The library’s total budget for this year is $789,472, Cook said. “In years before we were receiving about $90,000 to $100,000 total, and this year we’ve budgeted $60,000 and I don’t know if we’ll get there,”

According to Cook, fundraising has helped to make up for the loss of revenue since 2015.

“For fundraising we have a Friends of the Library group, and they do an awesome job. They usually do three big book sales a year and bring that money back to us so we can use it for programming and things like that,” Cook said. 

“Unfortunately just due to COVID-19 we haven’t been able to have any of our book sales. We didn’t do any in 2020, and 2021 is a little bit up in the air,” Cook said.

Despite lost revenue from both fines and fundraisers, libraries are dedicated to serving the community, Cook said.

“Just because of all of the difficulties of COVID-19 and trying to arrange things, we know how hard it is for people right now and we’re not trying to do any extra fundraising,” Cook said.

Libraries in Ionia County are struggling with the loss of fine income as well.

“Whenever you have a drop in revenue stream, it certainly affects the ability of the library to do its mission,” Dale Parus, the director of the Ionia Community Library, said.

According to Parus, even with the steady decline in fine income, the library tries to predict what its budget will be, but major decreases in fines because of the pandemic have made it difficult. 

“When you make up a budget, you do it in a yearly or two-year cycle, and with some things you have some certainty,” Parus said. “2020 was exceptionally tough because who would have ever forecasted that we’d have this type of a pandemic to go through?”

Parus says money from fines normally goes towards purchasing new books, DVDs, digital books, and programs for children.

“It’s not that one thing is going to suffer, it’s everything, our entire ability to service the public,” Parus said. “We are such a small location, we don’t have the room to do any fundraisers, and it’s been really hard to do anything offsite with all of the restrictions and all that.”

Some residents have noticed the loss of income and stepped up to help, Parus says.

“We had a gentleman who had a GoFundMe campaign for us and he’s raised over $5,500 from that. We also tend to get a fair amount of donations throughout the year,” Parus said.

With all of the uncertainty, Cook describes funding through fines as “unique to Michigan” and “kind of a strange roundabout way to fund public libraries.”

Despite the typically unpredictable nature of such funding, Parus says libraries are already seeing a “tightening of the projections for this year,” which will help put libraries back on track for next year. 

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