If you value these public institutions — and you should — send a clear message at next year’s polls

Later this summer, the City Council will once again emasculate the library system. How do I know this? Because that’s what they do every year, and I have the numbers to prove it.

In 2005-2006, the library’s funding finally passed the 2001-2002 level, and even that’s not as impressive as it seems. The system is operating more libraries than it did five years ago and, as near as I can tell, the system spent just $55,000 for new books in the last year.

I mention this not so much because I have any hope that the Council won’t play slash and burn with the library again (I’ve been following the process too long to harbor any illusions when it comes to the library), but to offer advice to the dozen or so people — a handful who are on the council — who have been mentioned as mayoral candidates next spring. They can talk about qualify of life issues all they want, which is the new and hip thing to do at City Hall these days. But talking isn’t doing, and there are a bunch of us who are paying attention.

This qualify of life stuff is so new and hip, in fact, that the library budget is broken up into four parts in the 2005-2006 budget outline, under something called Neighborhood Quality of Life (which is one reason why it’s so difficult to figure out how much money the system actually has to buy books). Someone more cynical than I am might think this was done to disguise how much is actually being spent, but it’s probably nothing more than an attempt to sell the new budget process. Once these guys get a slogan, after all, they stick with it. It’s a whole lot cheaper than actually doing something.

So why is the library such a convenient target? It’s not like it’s a huge part of the city budget — its $24 million is just a bit more than 1 percent of the total. I would prefer not to think it’s because the affluent, Anglo majority on the council sees libraries as something only poor people who aren’t white use. Regardless, there are still fewer employees working in the system today, even though there is an extra branch, than there were in 2001-2002.

Ed Palmer, a past president of the Lakewood Library Friends, just sighed when I asked him about this.

“The major problem you have when you get that far behind,” he says, “is that you never catch up. There are new books coming out every month, every day, every week. And we’ll never catch up.”

Case in point: Children’s books. The system is so broke that it not only can’t afford to buy new ones, but it can’t afford to replace the ones that wear out — because kids, being kids, do things like slobber on them and tear pages. Hence one of the Lakewood Friends’ projects is replacing children’s books, and they’d appreciate any help they can get (contact Palmer at ed.palmer@sbcglobal.net).

This is not a topic that the people downtown like to talk about. The man who answered the phone at the city’s public information office told me he didn’t have any budget information, that it was too early to talk about the 2006-2007 budget, and to contact the library. So I did, and I’m still waiting to hear from them.

Which is their choice. Call me corny, but I believe that reading is not just part of being a good person, but that it’s very American, what with the First Amendment and all that stuff. It’s certainly a lot more American than giving wealthy real estate developers tax breaks (and, just in case anyone missed it, that $6 million in tax breaks that the council gave Ray Hunt last year would have paid for one-quarter of the library’s budget).

Something else that is American is voting. And we get to do that next spring, when one of the things we should take into account is what happens with the library budget. Just in case anyone on the council is paying attention.

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