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Rural libraries funding in limbo


Across southern New Mexico, tiny towns like Gila, Lordsburg, Hatch, Columbus, Bayard, Cloudcroft and Eunice dot the map. They may be separated by long distances, but they share a similar struggle.

Their small population bases – and often high poverty rates – mean there’s not a lot of money to fund their community libraries, important hubs that serve roles well beyond book lending. They’re places where people can get help finding jobs and building resumes; tap into programs like lectures and kids’ classes; access health care; and – something that’s become increasingly important since the COVID-19 pandemic – access the internet or boost their digital skills. Some libraries are spots for emergency food pickup, and, in one case, potable water.

It’s against this backdrop that a grassroots effort sprang up in recent years to provide a creative, perpetual source of funding for more than 50 of these small, rural libraries across New Mexico, including in the south. And, while the initiative – set up as an endowment – is off to a robust start thanks to legislative allocations in previous years, the Legislature’s initial budget for the session that started Jan. 16 didn’t include any additional funding for the measure, despite the state’s financial windfall. However, the House appropriations committee has since added $2.5 million for the measure.

The library endowment’s initial absence from the proposed state budget stirred concern among library supporters, who are seeking an additional $27 million to completely fund the effort. Full funding would set the endowment on a path that, with the right management, could substantially help rural libraries for decades or longer into the future, library supporters said. A larger endowment means larger yearly payouts for rural libraries.

“If each library could potentially get $45,000 a year, that would be a game changer,” said Shel Neymark, director of the New Mexico Rural Library Initiative.

Neymark said he’s glad to hear there’s now at least some money in the evolving state budget for next year. It would mean some new money for rural libraries, but not enough.

“They could fully fund the endowment this year,” he said.

Supporters of the measure made their case Friday, Jan. 26 at the Roundhouse during Library Legislative Day. Sen. Gerald Ortiz y Pino, D-Albuquerque, has introduced Senate Bill 170 seeking $30 million for the rural libraries fund.

Seeing the need firsthand

Neymark has seen firsthand both the impact libraries can have in small towns and the struggle they face to keep their doors open. He’s a founder of the Embudo Valley Library, located in the tiny town of Dixon in northern New Mexico. The nonprofit operation opened in 1992, quickly becoming a go-to resource for local residents. At the time, Dixon was “in danger of becoming a bedroom community” because residents had few places to gather and meet, Neymark said. But, thanks to the library and a hub of activity that sprang up around it, residents saw a gradual change for the better.

“One of the most important functions of rural libraries is that people connect with one another,” he said. “It creates a community. The library created a place for community revitalization. And this really can be an answer for so many towns that are struggling in the state. We’re a real model for community sustainability.”

Like many others across the state, the Embudo Valley Library is in an unincorporated area, meaning there are no municipal tax dollars to support it. The New Mexico State Library system provides a small grant each year, but it’s not enough to sustain the library entirely. Neymark said the continual question he and board members faced was how to piece together enough money to keep the library open another year. He realized it was a challenge faced by many tiny libraries across rural New Mexico, which in turn sparked his idea for a statewide library endowment.

An endowment is a type of permanent fund, the dollars of which are invested. The interest generated then goes to a dedicated purpose, in this case rural libraries. The idea is that, as long as the principal amount remains untouched, the fund will provide a source of yearly payments to libraries – indefinitely.

In 2018, Neymark approached state Sen. Gerald Ortiz y Pino, who thought it was a good idea and suggested the Legislature fund it at the level of $50 million. This figure represented a $1 million endowment base for each of 50 libraries – mostly located in communities with a population of 3,000 people or less, but some are nonprofit-run libraries in larger towns. Several of the libraries serve colonias or pueblos, rural Hispanic and Native communities that face significant resource disparities. 

After contacting small libraries throughout New Mexico, Neymark helped to build a coalition to support the idea. The group rallied library patrons and board members to contact their respective lawmakers and ask for their support. The New Mexico Rural Library Initiative launched a website, complete with a map of all the libraries that would benefit. And, at least so far, their efforts have worked.

A growing library fund

The Legislature set up the fund in 2019, approving the first $1 million toward the $50 million goal. And lawmakers have been gradually adding to that amount since. They OK’d $2 million in 2020, $10 million in 2022, and $15 million in 2023 – for a total of $28 million to date.

Since the initial authorization, Neymark said five more small libraries are now eligible for funding, which has taken the endowment goal to $55 million. That means the coalition is seeking $27 million in the ongoing legislative session. While the amount is not small, lawmakers are dealing with a bumper budget of $10.1 billion for the upcoming 2024-25 year – about a 6 percent increase over the current year. They’ll allocate the entire state budget by the close of the session Feb. 15.

How does the library fund work? The state appropriations are channeled into a permanent fund and invested alongside other state dollars. The resulting earnings then go to the state library system, which keeps 5 percent for administrative costs and disperses most of the rest to rural state libraries. A small portion is also set aside to help fund startup libraries. There’s a time lag of a few years between when lawmakers approve funding for the endowment and when payments finally reach communities. That’s in part because of the timing of the state legislative cycles and because the money has to be invested for one year to start earning a return.

In the fall of 2023, libraries received their first payment from the newly established endowment: about $2,600 apiece. The amount was small because it was based upon the fund when it was first established and didn’t have much money in it.

But, based upon recent data, Neymark said the amount will grow next fiscal year, which starts July 1. The payments will be calculated from earnings on a larger endowment total. That means each library is on track to receive about $15,600 in the year ahead. That amount will be even larger next year. The money can go toward a variety of library expenses, including staff.

Magdalena library a resource hub

Occupying a high desert plain about 30 miles west of Socorro is the village of Magdalena, population 806. Its roots lie in ranching, mining and the railroad. Roughly one in four people experience poverty, higher than average poverty rate statewide, according to 2022 American Community Survey 5-Year Estimates estimates.

The library is one of the few public resources in the village.

“Our library is housed in a very nice, old train station, which is wonderful, but not ideal because of the climate control and the dust,” said Yvonne Magener, who’s serving her third stint as library director since 2010.

Finding money for seemingly small upgrades can be a challenge. The village recently improved the HVAC, but before it did, Magener said she’d occasionally close the library to the public because the temperature in the building dropped below 60 degrees in cold months.

The Magdalena library has been connected to fiber-optic internet – considered the gold standard for internet speeds and reliability – for about five years. Magener said she “fought very strongly” to get it so students would have access.

“I remember one of the board members was appalled that children would be taught online,” she said. “I said: ‘That’s the future. If someone really wants to learn something, you can take classes from any university anymore, but you need the internet.’”

The library also offers free Wi-Fi; tourists and locals can be found tapping into it from their vehicles in the parking lot. Patrons can use four laptops and six desktop computers in the library. The devices are not as in demand as they once were, because of more people using cell phones to access the internet at home, Magener said, but they’re still a useful resource for people needing to do things like build a resume – not easily done on a phone. And the library hosts a small print center that includes poster printing.

Magener said she’s hopeful the Legislature will fully fund the endowment. The small payment this year will help pay for some cleaning help, but she said the $45,000 that’s proposed with a fully funded endowment would be a significant boon.

“It would be for extra programs and maybe getting help in the library,” she said.

Better pay for library staff

Neymark said one of the biggest needs he sees is paying library directors and staff better. Many are managing book inventories, library programs and social services, among other things. But they’re being paid in the range of $12 to $15 per hour – what would be minimum wage or just above it in larger cities. And some libraries are volunteer-run. He said when lawmakers learn about the range of services libraries offer and the pay levels for librarians, the message resonates.

“In a lot of these towns, the library is the only thing that's going on,” he said. “When they hear about the early childhood programs, the after-school programs, and stories like Vallecitos (Community Center and Library) putting a phone on their porch for people who don't have a phone or Capitan (Public Library) providing potable water for people, it's really stories that made a difference.”

Why are libraries pursuing an endowment model? Magener noted that a key benefit is that once the endowment is funded, supporters won’t have to continue petitioning the Legislature for money every year, unless new libraries are added to the system. Another fact library supporters appear to be considering is the anticipated sharp decline in oil and gas revenues that fund the state government. This funding base is expected to peak around 2033, plateau and eventually decline, as society moves away from fossil fuels – meaning potential funding for libraries could become slim in the not-too-distant future.

“This is actually a hedge against the state budget going down,” Neymark said.

Supporters of the initiative recognize that earnings on the endowment are dependent upon the stock market, which ebbs and flows but historically has shown growth over long stretches. Its success, too, hinges upon decisions by lawmakers to fully fund it, something that seems up in the air this year.

The village of Hatch may best be known as the chile capital of the world, but on the outskirts of town, its public library is bustling with about 30 to 40 visitors per day. Library Director Lisa Neal said the fully funded endowment “would actually help us out a lot.

“Hatch, of course, is not a high-income community,” she said. “They don't collect a lot of taxes to afford a bigger budget. We do rely on outside sources other than the city to help us get the books and everything we need for the library.”

Neal credited Neymark’s vision and work organizing rural libraries for the endowment’s success in getting established and obtaining the money it has so far.

“He’s been the voice we needed,” she said.

‘I’d be looking at supporting it’

Neymark said he’s hoping for a line item in the state budget, but Ortiz y Pino’s bill may be another pathway for the endowment to be fully funded.

The district of state Rep. Jenifer Jones, D-Deming, includes three small libraries that would benefit from the endowment: Hatch, Columbus and Lordsburg.

Asked if she’d back fully funding the measure, she replied: “I'd have to look at the money and what it would be used for. We’re looking at not being wasteful of any funding. But I think that focusing on our libraries -- especially our rural libraries that offer so much to people of all ages, like access to computers and just being a hub for the community, that's very important. So, I'd be looking at supporting it.”

State Rep. Nathan Small, D-Las Cruces, and chair of the House Appropriations Committee, didn’t return calls seeking comment.

Diana Alba Soular is the project manager and editor for the Southern New Mexico Journalism Collaborative, covering COVID-19 and pandemic recovery from a solutions-reporting lens. For more information visit SouthNMnews.org or SurNMnoticias.org.

For more info: New Mexico Rural Libraries Initiative: NMRuralLibraryInitiative.org

Rural libraries, funding, legislation