Small library tax, big returns
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Much as I lamented the disappearance of the last bookstores in my neighborhood, the closed doors turned into one of those open-window kind of things.
They propelled me back to the Carnegie library.
Not that I didn't like the library before; I'd simply gotten out of the habit of using it. Barnes & Noble was right there on the main drag, luring me away with its window displays and evening hours.
Then it left me in the lurch, as did the Borders in East Liberty.
So now I visit the library faithfully to borrow at no charge the books I would have bought for $10 to $35 a pop -- and to find the ones that the book stores never seemed to have. Plus, sooner or later, those books go back to the source, which helps control a major source of clutter in my house. Even when I miss the due date, I compare the fine of 25 cents a day to a parking ticket at an expired meter, and it almost seems that the library is paying me for being late.
For these and other reasons, it's an obvious choice to vote "yes" on Tuesday's referendum to fund the library system with a small property tax hike. For an extra 0.25 mills -- $25 per year for every $100,000 in assessed value -- I'd still come out way ahead in the bargain. Meanwhile, the library would get a stable funding source, $3.25 million annually for maintaining and operating its 20 branches.
I realize, of course, that not everyone feels this way, so let's look at the arguments for voting "no."
First and foremost, it's a tax hike, period. For those who oppose any tax for any purpose as a matter of principle, that's reason enough to reject it.
Such principles, however, did not construct this country's public assets -- roads, bridges, schools, courts (imperfect as they may be) -- and they won't maintain or improve them.
When that old robber baron Andrew Carnegie decided to plow his ill-gotten gains into building this library system "for the people," he had to have believed we would realize its value and support it in the years to come.
This we have done with private and public funds. But state and local budgets keep shrinking while the library's costs keep rising -- and not because of excessive CEO compensation or $750,000 signs atop Downtown skyscrapers.
Stately old buildings are expensive to heat, cool, modernize and maintain. The information age has necessitated more and more computers, e-readers and other technology, all of it essential for people who don't have it at home, especially children whose future depends on multi-platform literacy.
The library leadership has done a fine job of raising capital funds and using them to their best advantage. The result is a growing list of library redesigns, each one a jewel of form and function.
I'm not going to reiterate the many other goods and services that the library provides, except to say that they don't come free, and the benefits to our local civilization outweigh the costs many times over.
That probably won't convince ardent anti-taxers to vote "yes," but it ought to be enough for the rest of us who know a good deal when we see it, and also believe in that thing called "the common good."
Another objection to the levy is that Allegheny County already has an extra 1 percent sales tax to support the Regional Asset District, enacted in 1995 to fund a long list of recipients, from small arts groups to libraries, parks, the symphony and stadiums.
RAD distributions are not decided directly by elected officials, but indirectly by their appointees -- two of the mayor's and four of the county executive's. Those six elect a seventh board member, and together they appoint an advisory committee of 27.
The RAD tax raises significant money, but it is spread among many organizations. So, while the library gets 70 percent of its funding from RAD, it still has to compete with others. And even as that funding rose, inflation cut its value.
RAD money also fluctuates with the economy. In 2009, the board withheld 10 percent of every grant due to the slump in sales tax receipts. The library had to cut its hours. That same year, its circulation was up 29 percent over the previous seven years, visits were up 27 percent and program attendance more than doubled.
Another sticking point with the proposed tax is that it applies only to city property owners, an unfair burden when people in the suburbs use these libraries too.
That may be true, but some of those suburbs support their own libraries, many of which participate in the interlibrary loan system that allows books to migrate to libraries throughout the region.
Rejecting this small levy because it should have been more widespread would be like rejecting a diphtheria vaccination because it doesn't cover measles. The money won't do everything, but it will do something, and that something is well worth doing.
We have a chance on Tuesday to take this issue into our own hands and act on it instead of waiting around for someone else to do it. In two recent polls, the library had a 90 percent job approval rating among local residents. It's not asking for anything it hasn't earned.
First Published November 6, 2011 12:00 am