Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Will Dallas' Library System Become a Casualty of Political Ideology?

Dallas' city council will vote on the 2010-2011 budget this month. The city manager's budget proposal closes a $131 million shortfall with a number of lay-offs, furlough's and budget cuts deep enough to concern some city council members and citizens. Dallas' mayor, Tom Leppert, is determine to hold the line on his commitment to no tax increase. He recently sent out a message to citizens reaffirming that commitment. It says, in part...

"Yes, we have a significant gap. But you will be glad to know that, like you, we've been closely examining our budget and looking for ways to better make ends meet."

"Cities across the nation are making tough choices. But we have developed a budget for next year that:

•increases the number of police officers on our streets
•invests in our fire and rescue operations
•maintains hours and access to our branch libraries, parks and rec centers
•substantially increases the total dollars to repair and rebuild our streets"

It is, in some measure, a call to realize the need to sacrifice in tough economic times. But there sacrifices and then there are sacrifices. Take cuts in library services. Hours of service may be maintained, what are the other impacts on services?

At a time when library usage has increased 20%, the proposed budget calls for a 29% reduction from current funding levels, which are a 67% reduction from 2008-2009.
The budget for materials is decreased $700,000 more from last year, for a decrease of $1 million, $2.6 million from 2008-2009. Is a library a library with inadequate and outdated materials?

What if the libraries maintain their hours with less staff? The people who catalogue and shelve the books, who answer the phones and assist the patrons? Staff is projected to be cut by 121 people. It translates into whole floors of the downtown library being closed for nearly half the year.

Budget cuts impact technology, children's programming, customer service and reading programs.

For those of us who still think how Dallas compares to other cities - at least in Texas, what Dallas spends on libraries should give us some pause:

The proposed budget calls for less than $17 million (1.75% of the budget) to be spent on our library system. In Houston the proposed budget calls for $37 million (2%); $31 million in San Antonio (3.4%); $25 million (4% ) in Austin.

Much is being made of how detrimental it will be to Dallas' ability to attract businesses if property taxes are raised. Will those businesses be more attracted to Dallas if it is seen as a city with a fungible commitment to literacy?

Dallas' library system is only one reason why the council needs to consider a tax increase. It is a metaphor to how a significant societal commitment is now vulnerable to the priority of political ideology - not just economics. In an age in which we are paradoxically calling for greater quality in education, while referring to the educated as 'elitist', we are sending a signal to citizens and the rest of the country as well: we remain committed to culture, our workforce and our commitment to the intellectual life of our society, we just choose not to pay for it...

You can find more information here...

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