By Megan Alley and Brett Milam
Sun Staff, Editor
ROI. Or as it’s known in the financial world, “return on investment.” It was the buzz phrase at the Clermont County Board of Trustees meeting on Oct. 16 regarding the fate of the Batavia branch library.
Anthony Cardinal, trustee and member of the building committee, presented a PowerPoint presentation at the meeting regarding the need to merge the Batavia and Owensville branches into one. The Genealogical Society collection at Batavia would also move to Owensville under the merger.
It’s an idea that’s been about a year in the making.
Currently, the Clermont County Public Library system consists of 10 branches: Amelia, Batavia, Bethel, Felicity, Goshen, Milford-Miami Township, New Richmond, Owensville, Union Township and Williamsburg.
This would mean the end of the Batavia branch library in the village. The prospect of which turned out a large crowd for the trustee meeting, with every voice who spoke before the trustees expressing passionate discontent with the idea.
For starters, the Ohio Library Council’s April 2016 report gives a broad overview of public libraries in Ohio. The OLC is a statewide association that represents Ohio’s public libraries and is comprised of members from those public library systems across Ohio.
In its report on the ROI of Ohio’s public libraries, the OLC said Ohio has 251 library districts, varying in size from serving as little as 5,000 people and as many as 850,000 people.
Modern libraries are also a cornucopia of services from circulation of materials (books, videos, music, physically and digitally) to reference services, computer and database access, library programs and meeting spaces for professionals and students.
And Ohio’s residents apparently appreciate that service, as nearly four out of every five Ohioans, or 77.8 percent, have a library card, according to the OLC. That puts Ohio only behind Minnesota for number of “registered borrowers.”
Additionally, Ohioans use the library’s myriad services to such an extent (234 million transactions in total) to only be behind New York in usage.
Specifically in Clermont County, about $8.8 million is spent on the library system, with personnel being the largest chunk of that at $5 million. Most funding comes from the state at $5 million, with an additional $3.7 million from property and local taxes, according to library’s 2016 annual report.
According to that report, at the Batavia branch, from 2015 to 2016, book circulation was up 2.23 percent and periodical circulation went up 34.04 percent. Additionally, the Genealogical Society collection brought in patrons from Illinois, Washington, Arizona, Indiana and other states throughout the country.
With the data-turned-information, Cardinal said they are better able to make informed decisions. Much of that data consisted of breaking down the value and costs accrued at each branch in the library system.
“The whole idea was to understand the effectiveness of the system, not only from a cost standpoint, but the benefits that the Clermont County Public Library system provides to its patrons,” Cardinal said.
The issue at question is allocation of personnel and space to “better serve Clermont County in an effective way,” he added.
On average, the county spends $923,000 on each branch in its system, Cardinal said.
“We take a look from big picture to big picture of the whole system and then to each facility,” he said. “What do we provide, as far as services are concerned? And then once we determine the services we provide, what’s it cost to deliver the services? With those two numbers…we call that our return on investment number.”
Overall, Cardinal put the valuation of the library system, if it were to be monetized, at $18 million, with $8.7 million for circulation, $4.6 million for computer and technology and $975,000 for meetings and library programs. Then the costs of each of those things is $2.8 million, $1.4 million, $1.2 million, and $323,000, respectively, totaling $5.989 million.
“We, as trustees, we feel — we don’t feel, we know — we have a fiduciary responsibility to the state of Ohio and to taxpayers to make sure that we’re spending the dollars appropriately and effectively,” Cardinal said.
Financial stewardship enables that, Cardinal said.
The return on investment then is $3.01, he said, meaning for every dollar spent, the library is providing $3 worth of value.
Cardinal said he retired recently after three decades of running investment companies.
“I managed lots and lots of dollars for retired community executives,” he said. “If I could tell a client, invest one dollars and you’ll get back three bucks, I’d be a hero. The work that’s being done here is phenomenal, as I see it.”
Then Cardinal looked specifically at each branch’s value. For example, Union Township generates the most ROI at $5. That is, it’s value was pegged at $4.575 million, with a cost of $903,165.
By comparison, Batavia’s ROI was the lowest on his chart, with $.94. The cost at Batavia, Cardinal said, is $961,944, with a value of $904,006.
However, part of that cost entails repairs on a leaking roof and a new HVAC system, totalling around $159,000, as well as a new circulation desk, which cost $95,000, totalling $250,000 spent at the Batavia branch since 2009.
Cardinal said he took into consideration these structural fixes, saying that the cost was $600,000 in 2015 and then said he took that number and using the cost of inflation in the years since 2015 and going to 2018, he arrived at a $715,000, which is what he used to achieve that ROI, he said.
It’s not clear from Cardinal’s presentation why he used that particular method to get Batavia’s ROI.
“From an investment standpoint, if I said, here, let me take a dollar and I’m gonna give you back $.94, is that a good deal?” Cardinal said.
“So the conclusion is, merge Batavia and Owensville branches, relocate the Genealogy Collection from Batavia to Owensville and ask the Owensville location to reassign personnel,” Cardinal said. “We do have space to expand services at Owensville. We do maintain a 15-minute drive time or less between branches. And lastly, if the movement to Miami Township required additional staffing in Batavia and Owensville, if we did that, the ROI drops to $.86 for Batavia.”
Cardinal is referring to if staffing had to be moved from Miami Township branch library to the Batavia and Owensville branches, were a merger not to happen, driving up personnel costs.
After Cardinal’s presentation, the trustees turned it over to the public for comment.
Dozens of people in the standing room only crowd lined up to speak in support of maintaining a Batavia branch of the Clermont County library, and against the building committee’s recommendation to consolidate services.
Common themes that spread throughout the speakers’ comments were, “the Batavia library is a community library,” “it’s a safe place for kids,” “Batavia is a college town, and if you take away the library there, the kids are going to have to go to [the] Union Township [branch] or where to go get their reading material,” and “kids need a library.”
Village of Batavia Administrator Dennis Nichols urged the board to look at opportunities to maintain a library branch in Batavia.
“There’s a great need. Batavia is a community with a significant number of lower income people, and it has a significant number of children who use the library right now. [The village also] has a lot of retirees who use the library,” he said. “The need is fairly obvious.”
He added, “I really hope the library board will take a closer look.”
When Nichols was asked by Joseph Braun, board president, whether or not he thought Batavia residents would drive to use the Union Township or Owensville branches, or any of the other nearby locations, he responded, “No. . . . People walk to the library.”
Batavia Middle School sixth-grader Emily Ginn, whose family used to live in Owensville, talked about her love for the Batavia branch.
“After school, sometimes I can walk down to the library, and when I get down there, I see a lot of children over there, just talking and being friendly to each other, and reading books with each other and showing them their favorite books so they can read more,” she said. “I love the library; that’s my source for new books. I love reading, and most of the books are ones that my friends have introduced me to, and they always talk about their favorite books at school.”
She said, “I really don’t think you should merge the two branches together, because a lot of the kids there are less fortunate, and they don’t have a lot of money, and some of them don’t even have cars, so they have to walk.”
Some speakers pointed out that the category of “circulation of physical items,” — one of the committee’s metrics for measuring the Batavia branch’s success, or lack thereof — didn’t account for the fact that many kids who live in “unstable households” don’t check books out because they aren’t sure they’ll be able to return the items undamaged, or at all. Rather, they read the books in the library.
Impassioned speaker Kelly Wright, who teaches American history at the University of Cincinnati Clermont, earned audience applause for her remarks.
She said that by closing the Batavia branch, the trustees wouldn’t just be removing a facility, they’d be damaging a community. She said that libraries have to be partners in children’s education, and suggested the library branch expand its hours and staffing, instead of closing.
“Return on investment is a term we use on for-profit businesses, but it’s woefully inadequate as a measure of success for a library,” Wright added.
She urged the trustees to be visionaries, and to do their job and try to come up with a positive solution.
“The onus is on you,” Wright said. “You have assets in your community; please don’t make a rash decision.”
Now, the trustees will review the the building committee’s recommendation, speaker comments and additional correspondence.
“I will tell everyone there were lots of very good comments made, and there are several things that I’m going to ask staff to research and look into,” Braun said.
Those wishing to chime in on the issue are urged to do so via written correspondence or by phone. Email information is available at www.clermontlibrary.org/about/board-of-trustees/, and mail can be sent to the trustees at: Clermont County Public Library Board of Trustees, 326 Broadway St., Batavia, OH 45103.
The trustees are expected to vote on the committee’s recommendation at their next regular meeting, which is scheduled for Nov. 13 at 6 p.m. at the Union Township branch, located at 450 Glen Este-Withamsville Road.