How not to save our libraries 

Officials from the Indianapolis Marion County Public Library announced yesterday that it would push back a decision on whether or not to close six Indianapolis libraries to fill projected budget shortfalls.

The announcement was welcome news, to the extent that it meant city officials — including Mayor Greg Ballard — seem to take seriously their public commitment to avoid the closings.

But let's not get ahead of ourselves.

The decision, originally scheduled for June 10, has been pushed back until July 15. Which means the library board has an extra month to wrangle the same intractable problem it's been trying to disentangle since at least April, when the closure plan was announced: how to close a budget gap that, according to IMCPL estimates, could reach 2.6 million in 2010, $3.1 million in 2011 and $3.2 million in 2012.

As we reported back in April, that's no easy task. IMCPL derives 80% of its income from property tax revenues, which have plummeted because of statewide tax caps and a foundering real estate market. Variously proposed solutions like public referendums or tax restructurings would require legislative action on the state level, where competing priorities from outside the city abound.

It would be nice to put the pessimism on hold — to have faith that the extra month is more than just a stay of execution. But Indianapolis leaders are giving little indication that their priorities have changed over the last few months. Not when you look at their actions.

Case in point is yesterday's announcement that the city plans to spend $3.1 million in taxpayer money to refurbish the City Market downtown.

Truth be told, the plan is kinda cool. According to a report in the Indianapolis Star, "the building's east wing will be home to a bicycle hub that will have space to park 400 bicycles and is geared toward users of the Cultural Trail," and will also include "lockers and men's and women's showers, as well as a service and repair shop."

But is now really the time to be spending that kind of money? Particularly on a plan that, as the Star's report points out, is funded by property tax revenues.

That's right, property tax revenues: that kind of revenue whose shortfalls have spurred plans to close libraries in some of the city's poorest, neediest neighborhoods.

The Star also notes that the city already spent $2.5 million in as recently as 2007 to revamp the City Market — a project that went over budget and took six months longer to complete than it should have.

Hat tip to Paul Ogden gets for telling it like it is:

Contrary to the Star headline, this is not a "bold" proposal. Rather it is more of the same, an attempt by city government, acting to override the free market system, to try to get the "open marketplace" idea to catch on.

The "bright colors" aren't going to change the fact that the area immediately around the City Market is still commercial and most of the patrons of the City Market are office workers who aren't inclined to go to the market for fresh produce and meats that they then have to cart back to their offices for the rest of the day.

True that, Mr. Ogden. And in the context of the situation at our libraries — which could put pretty good use to that $3.1 million right about now — the proposal seems especially feckless.

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