Closings loom for libraries

Rev. Greg Coates knows first-hand that public libraries are crucial to struggling neighborhoods. Photo by Mariah White

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


"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


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


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


"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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