David Hoppe

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:: Property tax caps = library closures

The possible closing of six library branches is a major defeat for the people of Indianapolis.  

By David Hoppe

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 21 st 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.