David Hoppe

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:: Ballard gets it right

The mayor does his job

By David Hoppe

Let's hear it for Mayor Greg Ballard. Last week the mayor galloped into the impending library crisis like the Seventh Cavalry on a rescue mission. Instead of bugles blowing there was a headline on the front page of The Star : "City vows to keep 6 libraries' doors open."

There weren't a lot of details offered as to how this vow would be kept. And the mayor's assistant, Robert Vane, took pains to remind us that the mayor makes no appointments to the library board and has no fiscal authority regarding the library's budget.

Everyone involved also stressed that the mayor's efforts would take the form of a stop-gap measure intended to buy time while a long-term solution for the library system's budget shortfall was developed.

But none of these caveats in any way diminish the significance of Mayor Ballard's willingness to insert himself into the action and, for now, prevent the city from taking a demoralizing hit. The mayor may not have any official authority over the public library, but he is the city's elected leader. In this case, he did what only a leader can do: he made something happen that changed the downward spiral of events.

Ballard's intervention in the library budget crisis should be a lesson to those who have made government the butt for everything that scrapes them about modern life. While Ballard's action should not be overstated - he was doing his job, not casting a silver bullet - it still affirms the idea that government is a tool we, as a community, can use to solve problems.

Considering all the problems confronting us today, the arguments about whether we need less government or more look increasingly like lazy self-indulgence. The fact is we need better government, or we're all going to be in a world of hurt.

The library crisis is a microcosm of the challenges ganging up on us. In this case, a longstanding and valued public service, one that contributes both to the lives of individual citizens as well as to the preservation of neighborhood identity, finds itself in the dilemma of trying to meet an increasing demand for what it does, with less money.

The same thing might be said about a lot of other public goods: schools, roads, health care, arts, the environment, even journalism. In every case, there's a felt need. Not just because tradition deems it so, but because we know that without literacy, mobility, certain standards of health and welfare, opportunities for creativity and free expression, biodiversity and reliable information, society is unsustainable.

It's been argued that if there is a genuine demand for these things then, surely, a market can supply them. The problem is that either not everyone can afford these things, turning what should be a general good, like health care or mobility, into a status symbol, or else the cost of spreading benefits among all classes dilutes the profit margin, creating a disincentive.

This is why we created "the not-for-profit" sector. Not-for-profits help to provide those goods that, after hundreds of years of trying, have yet to find a viable business model.

Interestingly, that not-for-profit sector seems to be getting bigger all the time. Just a few years ago, for example, the profit margins for newspapers in cities across America were the envy of business people everywhere, 15 percent or more. But pick up a daily paper today; it's a shadow of its former, bulky self. Readers and advertisers have migrated elsewhere for news. But while this trend has called the newspaper's business model into question, the need for reliable local reporting is great as ever. The trouble is that newsgathering - like so many other goods -- is expensive.

Whether the subject's quality journalism or water quality, public libraries or potholes, the underlying issue is sustainability. How are we going to provide ourselves with the goods necessary for an acceptable quality of life? Our public library's financial trouble was the result of a chain reaction. To meet its ever-growing demand for services, the library system undertook an expansion program. That program was based on financial assumptions that imploded when the state's property tax situation got out of hand. And property taxes seemed onerous because, in part, most incomes in Indiana have failed to keep pace with inflation, making peoples' property, in many cases, their only asset.

In a situation like this, it's no wonder the government has been painted as the bad guy. The government collects the taxes. But making taxes and government the bogeyman has only opened the door to demagogues who, in the end, are more interested in power for their cronies than problem solving. The real issue is figuring out how to sustain, and even grow, what we have with limited resources. Creativity and collaboration are vital.

Mayor Ballard hasn't solved the library's budget crisis. But in getting involved, he demonstrated that there's such a thing as commonwealth, a sense of community that we share and that must be sustained. Government is the tool we use to deal with problems like this one. Using it is called leadership.