Maxwell Anderson's IMA

 

There's

no way to soften this blow: Closing six library branches will be a major defeat

for the people of Indianapolis.

This

is what's staring us down as the Indianapolis-Marion County Public Library

board goes about the process of gathering input prior to making a final

decision about how to deal with reduced funding on Thursday, June 10.

The

unforgiving physics of public policy has kicked in. Action taken to curb

property taxes is now causing a predictable reaction. The public library

system, which derives 75 percent of its revenue from property taxes, is being

whipsawed by recent legislation capping property taxes coupled with Marion

County's declining property values. When library planners look down the road,

they see budget shortfalls of $2.5 million this year, $3.1 million in 2011 and

$3.2 million the year after that.

The

tragedy is that the library system is, in effect, being punished for its

success. Of all this city's cultural resources, our public libraries are the

most used and widely recognized. In 2009, IMCPL broke records for items borrowed

(17.1 million, up 8.1 percent) and visits (6 million, up 5.7 percent). Over two

million requests for titles were filled (up 12.2 percent) and patrons logged

over 1.2 million hours on public computers (up 19.7 percent). IMCPL received a

4-star ranking from national publication Library Journal and is ranked sixth in the

nation for libraries its size.

People

living in the neighborhoods of this city love their libraries; public library

service is something Indianapolis has done right.

It

is tempting, of course, to look at the expanded Central Library and at many of

our new and improved library branches and wonder if maybe IMCPL built too much,

too soon. But remember this: when plans for a systemwide upgrade were

originally introduced in the late 1990's, they were considered visionary,

cheered as an example of the kind of civic ambition Indianapolis needed in

order to grow into a 21st century destination.

What's

more, it's not as though IMCPL has been living high off the hog. The library

system has cut its operating budget every year since 2005, reduced salaries and

benefits for staff and cut or reduced an array of other expenses, from

maintenance to supplies.

Finally,

and for some perspective, compare IMCPL's recent expansion with a couple of

other publicly funded building projects that have hit the fiscal fan, Conseco

Fieldhouse and Lucas Oil Stadium. The library's projected $3 million budget

shortfall in 2011 is five times less than the $15 million a year the Simon

family wants the city to ante up to cover operating expenses at Conseco. As for

the Luc, the city actually initiated a supercharged form of sales tax on

restaurants, hotels and rental cars to build that behemoth – and it's

still trying to figure out how to cover millions of dollars of annual upkeep.

If

Conseco and the Luc can, in spite of their yearly dose of sticker shock, be

considered city assets, then so is our public library system, which serves more

people, every day and every year, and for far less money.

At

its root, though, what's happening here isn't really about the public library.

It's about taxes and our complete and utter failure to have anything resembling

a rational public conversation about them.

Nobody

likes taxes, that's a given. But that doesn't make them unnecessary or evil.

Our so-called political leaders' eagerness to pander to our allergic reaction

to taxation, with their Punch and Judy campaigns based on trying to see who can

most effectively cast the other as a tax and spender, has done nothing but

reveal the dry rot permeating what passes for our politics.

I

wasn't thrilled about what happened to my property tax bills when the state

implemented its new and manifestly wrongheaded form of property evaluation. I

was grateful for the relief that followed.

But

I have also been struck by the blatant cowardice of public officials who refuse

to look at our tax situation as a whole or speak frankly about what quality

public services really cost and how much we may all have to pay in order to

achieve them. The idea that we are on the brink of writing property tax caps

into the state constitution based on a referendum this Fall, looms as a

collective abdication of civic responsibility, an admission that we can't trust

ourselves to make rational decisions based on the changing needs of our

communities.

Mayor

Ballard won his office by running against taxes. Now he's about to preside over

the degradation of one this city's most prized and successful public services.

He can't, by himself, fix this situation. But you'd think he'd want to advocate

for a solution. At least he needs to level with us and lead a discussion about

what this city's priorities should be -- and how we'll pay for them.

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