Closings loom for libraries 

The Rev. Greg Coates, senior pastor of the First Free Methodist Church, on the Near East Side of Indianapolis, knows first-hand the city's public libraries aren't just important in struggling neighborhoods like his – they're crucial.

When news surfaced earlier this month that the Spades Park Branch Library faced the threat of closure just a few blocks from his church, he knew its effects could prove devastating for those who had come to depend on it.

"I had a teenager come up to me not too long ago, almost with tears in her eyes," he said. "And she just said, 'Pastor, I don't know what I'll do if they close our library. I can't tell you the number of times that my father has come home drunk, and threatened to beat my sister and me, and the only safe place we could go in our neighborhood was the library.'"

If closing one branch is bad, closing six is six times worse. But that's exactly what the Indianapolis-Marion County Public Library (IMCPL) proposed to do earlier this month to close looming budget gaps. If implemented, the proposal would shutter Spades Park, Brightwood, Flanner House, Fountain Square, Glendale and West Indianapolis branches.

Though the decision isn't final (library officials expect to vote in June), the public outcry has been mounting – particularly as the city seems poised to cough up $15 million to maintain Conseco Fieldhouse, home of the Indiana Pacers.

Leaders like Coates have taken to organizing rallies and spreading the word via online networking tools. Coates' Facebook page, "Save the Spades Park Library," garnered more than 700 followers within weeks and includes contact information for local politicians, library officials and newspapers. Meanwhile, advocates are hoping to mobilize people to two public forums scheduled for May 10 and 12, at 6:30 p.m. at the Library Services Center on N. Meridian Street.

Revenue from property tax

That IMCPL would need to close six of its 23 locations may seem severe, but so is the state of its finances. IMCPL finds itself in a perfect storm much bigger than the library – the taming of which would require some heavy lifting by city and state leaders to ensure the library's long-term vitality.

Tom Shevlot, president of the IMCPL's board of trustees, the library's volunteer governing body, explained that library officials still hoped to avoid closures, but admitted the situation was difficult.

"Between now and when we have to make these decisions, there's an enormous amount of work being done to try to figure out every possible avenue to avoid any of these options," he said.

The way that state and city-county tax law is structured, IMCPL derives roughly 80 percent of its revenues from property taxes – nearly $37 million in 2009, less than 3 percent of property taxes paid by Marion County residents.

Two developments in particular have battered IMCPL's revenues: the 2008 property tax cuts, which, if ratified by referendum this year, will permanently limit property taxes to a low, fixed percentage; and the housing bubble, which sent foreclosures spiraling upward, and taxable home values downward.

According to IMCPL estimates, that translates into huge losses for the foreseeable future: up to $2.6 million in 2010, $3.1 million in 2011 and $3.2 million in 2012.

In January, IMCPL assembled a team of staffers and board members to address the shortfalls. The group labored 20 hours a week for three months, Shevlot said, before presenting its findings this month to the IMCPL's finance committee, which makes most budgetary decisions.

Of the four cost-cutting options they presented, only the most drastic – which included closing six branches – put IMCPL back under budget.

Operating at a deficit, like federal and state governments sometimes do, was not an option, Shevlot said.

"The federal government they just go out and print more money," he said. "We don't have that printing shop at the back of our building."

Speaks volumes about values

Of the various solutions proposed in speeches and newspaper editorials, the two with the most long-term potential may also be the most difficult.

The first is putting a referendum on election ballots this November, authorizing a small tax increase to fill the budget gap – an increase Shevlot and others have placed at about $10 per person.

The second is to allow libraries access to revenues collected as part of Marion County's County Option Income Tax (COIT). Advocates have noted that of the 28 Indiana counties that collect COIT, Marion County is the only one that doesn't use some of it for library expenses.

Of course, the trouble is knowing where to cut when departments are cash-strapped citywide. Of the $165.5 million in COIT revenues freely available for city-county services in 2009, the lion's share went to services like police (about $87.4 million) and fire departments ($32 million), according to the City Controller's office. Roughly $22 million was divided among 13 townships and municipalities like Beech Grove and Southport.

State Representative John Day (D-District 100), whose East Side district comprises two of the proposed branch closings, called COIT revenues "a considerable amount" compared to the relatively small gaps in the library budget.

"I think it's really sad that we can build a stadium for $700 million, but we can't come up with a little bit of money to help libraries," Day said. "It just speaks volumes about our values."

However, both of these measures require a change in state law, Day noted – a task that's neither easily, nor quickly accomplished. State law, he said, dictates that IMCPL can only hold a referendum if authorized by City-County Council, and only for capital projects – not operating expenses. Restrictions placed on COIT revenues in Marion County are likewise enshrined in state law.

Short-term prospects look more promising. Day said it was an "uphill battle" demanding extraordinary leadership at local and state levels, but that emergency funds could be cobbled together if there was enough political will.

"My own attitude is, let's get through the next couple of years first," he said.

Needy neighborhoods

Critics say the city's poorest neighborhoods stand to suffer most from the current proposal – the municipal equivalent of "taking the poor and twisting the knife in their back," Coates said.

"You look at the half dozen branches that are being closed and they are all in needy neighborhoods," he noted.

But Tom Shevlot said the selections were based solely on factors like branch proximity. Closing the Lawrence branch, for example, would force some patrons to travel seven or eight miles to the next nearest branch.

Joe Bowling, a community organizer at the John H. Boner Community Center, on E. 10th Street, argued that library closings were tougher on economically challenged neighborhoods. For some patrons, the library provides their only access to online job search resources. And for those who don't own a car, just getting to the library becomes very difficult.

"Approximately 25% of our neighbors don't have reliable transportation, and another 10 to 15% of them rely on public transportation to get around," Bowling said. "To walk two miles to Central Library – or, from some parts of our neighborhood, four miles – is not happening."

Coates agreed that access issues made the potential closings a social justice issue above all else.

"It's a matter of, do we prioritize those institutions which can actually help pull people out of poverty?" he said. "What are we communicating to our kids in this city if we choose basketball over books?"

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