This blog represents most of the newspaper columns (appearing in various Colorado Community Newspapers and Yourhub.com) written by me, James LaRue, during the time in which I was the director of the Douglas County Libraries in Douglas County, Colorado. (Some columns are missing, due to my own filing errors.) This blog covers the time period from April 11, 1990 to January 12, 2012.

Unless I say so, the views expressed here are mine and mine alone. They may be quoted elsewhere, so long as you give attribution. The dates are (at least according my records) the dates of publication in one of the above print newspapers.

The blog archive (web view) is in chronological order. The display of entries, below, seems to be in reverse order, new to old.

All of the mistakes are of course my own responsibility.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

February 3, 2011 - the best is a bargain

Last year I gave a series of talks. They all started with questions.

How many people had Internet access at home? It turns out that for most of the professional audiences I talked to, nearly everyone did. In Douglas County, surveys suggest that up to 97% of the households have broadband access at home.

So then I asked how much people spent per month, per household, for the service. The answers varied, but generally started at a low of $30 a month, up to about $80.

How many people had either cable or satellite TV at home? Again, most of the hands went up.

What did it cost? I found a few families who spent about $50 a month, but there were also some high-end satellite users who anted up $300. Usually, they watched a lot of sports.

How many people had cell phones? Again, it's hard to find anybody who doesn't, these days.

The monthly cost? You can get a single plan for $30. If you have teenagers who text, as I do, it's $150 a month.

So I asked how many people had Netflix. That tended to be a smaller crowd.

The monthly cost ranges from one movie a month (around $9) to three (around $25).

So let's just take a minute to recap. At the low end, households are putting out about $110 every month. At the high end, it's closer to $555.

What do you get for these expenditures? You get education (or so you tell yourself, because you watch nature films, not pro wrestling). Or, okay, for entertainment, because pro wrestling is hilarious. And finally, you get social connections -- Facebook, email, texting, and so on.

And almost everybody knows what they pay, although they don't often aggregate it.

Then I asked another question: and what good do these costs do your community?

At that point, my usually voluble audiences got quiet. It's a rhetorical question. They didn't buy those things for their community.

Then I asked the kicker: so what do you think the average American household spends per month for public libraries?

Right off, it became obvious. They had no idea. I've asked this question all around the state, and most people simply don't know.

The answer, based on national data, is this: households pay an average of $2.68 per month for their public libraries. Guess what. We provide education, entertainment, and social connection, too, except it actually benefits the entire community.

How does that average cost compare to Douglas County? It's a simple calculation.

The formula is this: take the market value of your home, then multiply it by .0796 to get your assessed value. Then multiply that number by .004 to get the library's annual assessment. Then divide that by twelve to get your monthly cost.

It just so happens that every year, all those government agencies that assess a property tax send out a bill. Think of it as a receipt for services. A lot of households are about to get this bill.

I don't own a terribly pricey home. But my library bill comes to $60.43. Per year. That's $5.03 per month. It's almost twice the national average. On the other hand, we are the number one library in the country for our population size, too.

So for $5 a month I can check out all the books, music, and movies I can use. I can take toddlers to free storytimes. I can go to civic events. I can see art, practice foreign languages, use really high speed public computers (although I may have to wait awhile for one to free up). I can even download library books and music from home, 24/7.

Libraries make our communities smarter and more interesting.

Just this month, Douglas County rolled out their tax calculator. You can find it here.

The idea is a good one: there's a lot of talk about "high taxes." But people have a tendency to exaggerate the numbers, and to have a pretty fuzzy notion of what they get for the expense.

So my advice: take a close look at your tax bill and think it over. It just might be a bargain.

LaRue's Views are his own.


  1. Jamie,

    Two things about your article. First, your Netflix example is incorrect. It's not x dollars for 1, 2, or 3 movies a month. It's x dollars for 1, 2, or 3 movies out at a time during the month. Your monthly fee buys you as many movies as you can watch for that price. It only limits you to the number at "home" per month.

    Second, I'm a great supporter of public libraries and have voted in favor of building a new library in Parker. The current space is a fiasco, even with the recent improvements in the parking lot and interior. You've done a great job with what you have to work with. This is the first time I've seen you actually use hard numbers so folks can see what portion of their taxes go directly to the library. Maybe if you'd taken this approach in the last election that failed, it may have passed. The perpetual example of a 300k house is ridiculous in a county that's so affluant. I don't know anyone who lives in a house worth only 300k. I would have used an example for each 100k from 300 - 1MM.

  2. Thanks, Carol, both for correcting my Netflix sloppiness, and for voting for the library. But I've been using hard numbers all along. Our failure to win these past two elections, I fear, had nothing at all to do with providing information. It had to do with an underlying mindset, a mental frame in which public investments are looked at askance. Ultimately, voters get what they agree to pay for.