Support the libraries we need

Thomas / MCT

It will soon be that time again — no, not tax time, or Easter, or even the end of the school year, but County Budget Season. The time of year when a young bureaucrat’s fancy turns to thoughts of property taxes, reduced services, laid-off employees and shuttered county facilities leaving a hole in our communities.

But, you may ask, didn’t we just have this fight? About libraries and firefighters and pet shelters? Yes, we did. But the libraries, at least, were “saved” by an 11th-hour reprieve — an agreement to utilize the library system’s reserves in the current year in order to maintain the same level of staffing and services. This would give Mayor Carlos Gimenez, the commissioners — and, more important, the community — a chance to come up with a viable alternative.

The Miami-Dade Public Library System (MDPLS) is primarily funded through property taxes; property owners pay into the library special taxing district, which in 2009 was set at a millage rate of .3822. In following years, the millage was gradually reduced until it came to its current low rate of .1795. Practically, that .1795 means a home worth $200,000 pays a little over $34 annually into the system, less than $3.00 a month. The reductions created a $23-million gap in funds, resulting in the current crisis.

Fast forward three months, and we have had multiple meetings of the Mayor’s Blue Ribbon Task Force and its work groups, consultant reports, polls, and anything else you can think of, all to tell us the same thing — this community needs and wants its libraries.

Not only do residents want their libraries, but they want them improved. They want enhanced technology, longer hours, more books (e- and print) and more programs.

Programs for adult and childhood literacy, books sent to the homebound, books for the vision impaired, all of these things are provided by the library, and all are things the community has clearly spoken about wanting to maintain.

The delivery of these essential services is threatened because there is the perception that the community is not willing to fund them. Polls and research say otherwise. Most people polled didn’t know about the budget shortfalls, and 45 percent agreed that property taxes should be shifted or increased to some small degree to protect and preserve MDPLS, with 20 percent undecided.

Unfortunately, it is far too easy to use the words “tax increase” and immediately it becomes unpalatable. No one wants to pay more taxes. That much is true. But often, many are willing to pay more taxes in order to maintain a level of quality services that reflects their needs and the image of the community they wish to portray.

In any cost/benefit analysis, the cost of losing our libraries is insurmountable next to the perceived benefit of keeping a few more dollars in our pockets. However, it is difficult to “sell” the libraries, since the explanation of what they do is far greater than what fits into a convenient sound bite. So, some go on thinking of them as archaic institutions, outdated, with elderly librarians and card catalogs and clouds of dust, when nothing could be further from the truth.

And if libraries are a hard sell, librarians even more so.

Library staffing levels are lower than they have been in decades, making it a struggle to provide even the most basic level of service. And librarians are just as essential for a successfully functioning system as books or technology.

Their experience is not bound by the walls of the library, their knowledge is not limited to what is on the shelves.

The digital revolution has not made either libraries or librarians obsolete; rather, it has made them necessary to navigate the wealth of knowledge that continues to duplicate at an exponential pace.

We all love libraries, but just like man and bread, libraries cannot live on love alone. In our widely disparate county, home to the richest and poorest residents in the United States, we simply cannot afford to deny anyone access to the knowledge and thus the opportunity that the library provides.

We need to demonstrate our commitment to libraries, to librarians, to our children and to the future of our community by pledging to have a fully funded and viable library system.

Spend this budget season writing to Mayor Gimenez and your commissioner, letting them know what you want for your libraries and your community.

Patricia Martinez-Gormley is an attorney and community advocate for libraries.

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