Raise library tax, advocates tell Miami-Dade Commission

04/23/2014 5:19 PM

04/23/2014 5:21 PM

Library advocates urged Miami-Dade commissioners Wednesday to raise the tax money needed to avoid steep cuts at the county’s library system, and to ignore Mayor Carlos Gimenez’s call for a summer referendum on library funding.

“Don’t let dismantling the library system be your legacy,” Miami resident Maggie Fernandez told commissioners during a finance hearing largely devoted to the library system’s looming $20 million budget gap.

Commissioners stayed silent on whether Miami-Dade should undo at least part of a 2011 cut in the library property tax. By tapping dwindling cash reserves, the department was able to maintain a $50 million budget this year, but the tax itself only generates roughly $30 million for libraries. Without more revenue, library administrators have a plan to cut about half of their full-time staff next year in order to keep all 49 branches open.

Library advocates fighting the budget cuts urged commissioners to raise enough revenue to boost the budget to $64 million and ease the current spending strains on the system. About two dozen speakers touted libraries as a crucial government service, even as e-books and online research upend the traditional role of the printed materials at the heart of libraries’ collections.

“We are the Children’s Trust for the elderly and the middle aged,’’ said library clerk Mercedes Munias, referring to the tax-funded group that distributes about $100 million a year for services benefiting Miami-Dade children. “They’re living on paychecks and fixed incomes. Imagine if they had to pay extra for Internet services or for large-print materials.”

The hearing chairman, Commissioner Esteban “Steve” Bovo, noted that the unanimous support for a property-tax increase did not represent the full sentiment of Miami-Dade. “Remember, we have to balance another part of the county that is not here, that is dealing with foreclosures and other issues.”

Gimenez said he will not endorse higher taxes this year unless voters first endorse an increase, and he proposed a non-binding referendum this summer. The idea received no support at Wednesday’s hearing, with library advocates and Bovo himself saying commissioners should make the decision themselves.

Last year, Gimenez briefly proposed a higher library tax as part a larger tax increase, but quickly backed off the idea. The current library tax costs about $17 for every $100,000 of assessed value of a property, and a $64 million budget would require a tax of about $35 per $100,000.

While voters in the past two years approved tax hikes for schools and public health, political leaders are still wary of asking for another increase. Daniella Levine Cava, who is challenging Lynda Bell for her District 8 county commission seat, has publicly opposed library cuts and attended Wednesday’s hearing. In an interview, she declined to say whether she would vote for a higher library tax. “I don’t think it is responsible for me to say we should raise taxes at this point until I can fully explore how we are spending our revenues,’’ she said.

As chair of the commission’s Finance Committee, Bovo summoned department heads for the first in a series of budget briefings. And while department chiefs from Animal Services, Cultural Affairs, Human Resources and others made presentations, members of the public only rose to speak after the library briefing.

The most unusual moment came when library clerk Fara Jacobson stepped to the microphone and asked commissioners to join her in an exercise that keeps children attentive during story time. Jacobson instructed commissioners to belt out a chorus of “ooohooohoooh” each time she lifted her finger into the air.

Then the $15-an-hour county employee recited a ghost story, with commissioners loudly providing the spooky chorus on cue. “When you reach into your inner child, tell me you don’t feel happy and glad,’’ Jacobson said to laughter afterwards. “I get paid $33,000 a year to play with your children and teach your children and make them glad.”

In earlier meetings, Gimenez has questioned whether Miami-Dade is overpaying librarians. The average salary last year was $63,000, and some of the most senior librarians earned more than $90,000. Library director Raymond Santiago said Wednesday the county’s librarian wages meet the national average, thanks largely to industry standards that librarians hold master’s degrees. He pushed back on the idea of replacing well-paid librarians with low-wage workers without library skills.

“I think it’s wholly unfair, the attacks we’ve seen on our staff,’’ Santiago said. “This community deserves quality staff.”

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