Joe Cardona: Libraries are essential, they must be preserved

As a kid growing up in Hialeah in the 1970s, I cherished my visits to our public library. John F. Kennedy library, which is still located on Hialeah’s bustling 49th street, provided a respite from the mundane. The JFK library was where I first read about Harriet Tubman’s heroic Underground Railroad, Vince Lombardi’s tenacity as a football coach, José Martí’s valiant struggles for Cuba’s freedom and Mark Twain’s humorous chronicles of the South.

When I was in college, I would still periodically duck into the JFK library to cram for a test. It felt good to see grade-school kids milling around the place making discoveries similar to the ones I had made years before. I felt pride and continuity. I felt a great sense of egalitarianism and down-home American fairness — the library afforded everyone the same opportunities to learn, question, process and dream.

As the Miami-Dade County Commission heads into another difficult budget session, there is a $20-million gap that needs to be covered if the county is going to sustain library services as they are today.

“The message from the mayor’s office has been discouraging to say the least,” a veteran librarian in North Dade told me. She asked me not to use her name, for fear that her job would be jeopardized. “After serving the community for so many years, to think that the mayor and some commissioners think so little about our worth knocked the wind right out of my sails.”

A librarian in West Dade, who also did not want to be identified, said that none of her colleagues entered the profession for the money. “My family certainly doesn’t live a lavish lifestyle by any means. After reading about all the controversy over our salaries, my husband kiddingly asked me if I was holding out on him.”

A recent Dade Data report on the county’s budget supports her statement about humble compensation. According to the report, library department employees are among the county’s lowest paid.

The modus operandi for Miami-Dade County Mayor Carlos Gimenez’s administration, when faced with a pressing issue, seems to be one of four ineffective actions: 1. Gather an advisory committee. 2. Waffle back and forth on whether to fund something (by raising taxes). 3. Call for a non-binding, straw poll (which the mayor and the commission will ignore, as evidenced by the Pets’ Trust fiasco). 4. Ignore the problem and hope it goes away.

The mayor and some commissioners seem fixated on the notion that raising taxes is always bad and that voters will always react adversely to tax hikes. While I have yet to meet a taxpayer who is joyous about tax increases, I also know that they have a bit more common sense than elected officials give them credit for. Recent poll results indicate that county taxpayers were unwilling to pay higher taxes to maintain an adequate library system. But that stands in the face taxpayers’ support at the ballot box for similar quality-of-life initiatives such as the Children’s Trust, the School Board bond issue and the Pets’ Trust.

The reluctance of Gimenez and some commissioners to raise taxes shows that they are preoccupied with their electability rather than governing. When deciding where to trim Miami-Dade County’s multibillion dollar budget, they ought to do less polling and make judiciously sound decisions that will preserve essential services, like our libraries.