The exterior of the Central Library in downtown San Antonio. Photo by Scott Ball.
The Central Library in downtown San Antonio. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

The City and County are in talks to renew a long-standing interlocal agreement that allows Bexar County residents outside of San Antonio to use the City’s public library system.

At issue is how much funding the County will contribute to the San Antonio Public Library’s budget at a time when Bexar County officials are planning further expansion of its own digital library system. 

Between 2015 and 2016, Bexar County paid the City of San Antonio $3.78 million for library access. The County’s contribution to the City for library funding has declined over the past four years by $300,000 each year; the County paid $2.58 million in fiscal year 2019.

The decrease has been due, in part, to the County’s investment in BiblioTech, an all-digital library originally conceived by Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff, that is available to both city residents and county residents outside of San Antonio.

In 2019, the County’s contribution made up 6 percent of the library’s general fund. Non-San Antonians in the county, however, made up 23 percent of the circulation tracked. Circulation measures how many titles are checked out of the library – digital or physical copies of library materials.

It’s difficult to directly compare the County’s contribution to the library’s budget against non-San Antonians’ use of the library system, however, SAPL Director Ramiro Salazar said.

“The County views it as their value to the City is not only the $2.58 million but also their investment in BiblioTech, because it also provides service to city residents,” Salazar said. “That’s part of negotiations.”

The current interlocal agreement expires at the end of September. Though the City depends on County funding to extend library services to all county residents, Salazar said he cannot speculate how further reducing County funding or eliminating it completely would affect the library.

“Without the County’s contribution, this could potentially affect current library operations, as the City would have less revenue to support its operations and availability of services to all library users,” Salazar said. “At this point, it is too early to answer with specifics.”

Five years ago, Salazar told City Council that he felt the County was not paying its fair share for library usage.

“We think the County should pay more than $3.78 million,” Salazar said to Council members in 2014. “We subsidize the operation.”

In the same 2014 meeting, then-City Manager Sheryl Sculley was more direct with her assessment of the situation.

“They [the County] want the service. They don’t want to pay what they’re paying,” she said. “Quite candidly, this was a problem five years ago and we have that same problem now. They’d like to pay less and use that money for BiblioTech.”

Now, however, Salazar said he thinks BiblioTech is “value added” to all county residents, including those in San Antonio. He said he left his first budget meeting in early July with City Manager Erik Walsh feeling good.

“We’re optimistic we’ll negotiate something both parties can agree with,” he said.

Salazar added that circulation is only one way to measure usage, as libraries do not collect visitor data on people who use resources on site or people who attend events at libraries. The San Antonio Public Library does see a higher circulation rate than BiblioTech, however.

“Our usage is almost 1.8 million [per year] compared to BiblioTech’s 266,000 in digital circulation,” Salazar said. “We feel we offer a more robust digital collection because we’re a bigger system. BiblioTech is a smaller system.”

BiblioTech does not track usage rates of San Antonio residents versus other Bexar County residents, according to a County public information officer.

There are three BiblioTech locations in San Antonio, and the digital library’s physical presence continues to grow. BiblioTech opened its first location in 2013, celebrating its first year with a “Best in Texas” award and national government technology award. A second Westside location opened in 2015 to great fanfare, and the third and largest BiblioTech location to date opened last April on the East Side. In June, County commissioners also approved $2.7 million toward building a new BiblioTech EDU, which also gives educators classroom resources, on the campus of Fox Tech High School.

Bexar County's third full-service BiblioTech branch on the East Side is officially open.
Bexar County’s third full-service BiblioTech branch is located on the East Side.

Each BiblioTech location offers desktop computers with internet access, printing, scanning, and faxing services, and e-reader devices that users can check out. BiblioTech users can also access the system’s catalog of downloadable books, magazines, movies, and other media accessible through smartphones, tablets, and other digital devices.

According to the interlocal agreement, the City and County work together to ensure there are no overlapping services between BiblioTech and SAPL, such as having duplicate copies of books or movies. When the agreement was negotiated, the County pledged to invest the annual decrease in its library contributions in products and services for BiblioTech.

Paul Stahl, president of the SAPL board of trustees, said that while discussion over a renewed interlocal agreement is in the early stages, he fears for the future of the County’s funding.

“We’re just hoping the County continues wanting to participate in the interlocal agreement,” he said. “When I said fear, that’s where that comes from – not understanding if they value public libraries and printed material and all the other services and enhancements that go along with the public library system versus purely a purely digital system.”

The library has 30 different facilities around San Antonio that San Antonians and other Bexar County residents can use. It costs $42 million each year to operate it all, Salazar said, and most of the budget goes toward resources that the community uses: books, DVDs, newspapers, and databases.

“The effort to make those items available – to not only procure them but make them accessible – takes up about 58 percent of our budget per year,” Salazar said.

The next largest portion of the budget goes toward infrastructure, Salazar said. About 22 percent maintains the library facilities, 10 percent supports technology, and 9 percent funds age-specific targeted resources such as story time for children or quilting classes for adults.

Salazar said while there is no significant difference between BiblioTech’s and the public library system’s digital titles, BiblioTech does has a few features not offered by SAPL. The County contracts with Hoopla, a service that allows BiblioTech users to borrow audiobooks and movies, and provides resources for self-publishing and digital publishing as well.

The San Antonio Public Library Foundation and the Friends of the San Antonio Public Library also provide supplemental financial support, Salazar said. The Friends provide about $60,000 a year, while the library’s nonprofit fundraising arm has provided an average of $770,000 per year for the past eight years.

The City and County share multiple services – such as a crime lab, hotel tax collection, food services and permitting, and magistration – under one master interlocal agreement. The City and County renewed a new master interlocal agreement in May, but library services are still being negotiated.

County Manager David Smith said all County budget requests are currently being evaluated.

“County staff is preparing to present budget recommendations to Commissioners Court in August to include recommendations for interlocal agreements with the City of San Antonio and other suburban cities and agencies,” Smith said in a prepared statement. “At this time, it would be premature to discuss specific funding but the County will continue to work and discuss terms with City of San Antonio leadership as we continue through our budget process.”

The City’s budget will be presented to City Council Aug. 8. The County budget will be presented at the end of August.

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Jackie Wang

Jackie Wang covered local government for the San Antonio Report.