The folks running the Salt Lake City Library system face a tough sell. They want the city to raise taxes for its library system at a time when libraries, like so many other things in the modern world, are being redefined by the age of the Internet and mobile devices.
They may get their wish. The city council, not voters, will decide whether to raise the share of property taxes that go toward the library by the requested 21 percent, or perhaps by some smaller amount. The public will get to share its opinions at a hearing.
But underlying this request is a much larger question. Is it ethically proper for governments to raise taxes to build new facilities without also, at the same time, covering the cost of operating and maintaining them?
In recent years, the city opened two new library braches —Glendale and Marmalade — without any budget for maintenance.
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At least that’s what library executive director Peter Bromberg told the combined editorial boards of the Deseret News and KSL last Monday. He said the City Council told the library to use its accumulated surpluses to cover those costs until it got a handle on how much it would need each year — a figure he said comes to $1.5 million the library doesn’t have.
But the proposed tax hike also would raise another $1.5 million each year to be set aside as a maintenance budget for the rest of the system.
Which means we’re supposed to believe city libraries have operated since 1898 without budgeting for repairs. Either that or it stopped doing so at some point.
Writing for citylab.com two years ago, Eric Jaffe described something called the “tyranny of the ribbon.”
“Of the many reasons infrastructure repairs get snubbed for construction, big public ribbon-cutting ceremonies that come with fresh projects—but not with stale maintenance—is near the top of the list,” he wrote. “By the nature of their limited tenure and uncertain futures, politicians care more about attaching their name to a new project than extending the life of someone else's old one.”
He was writing mainly about highway construction, which is a related, and perhaps more urgent, topic. Utah, he said, spent 93 percent of its highway money in 2014 on highway expansion, leaving little for repairs and maintenance. But the lure of ribbon cuttings crosses all lines of government. No one throws a party to celebrate a maintenance budget.
The library’s request comes at a time when the library board has decided to do away with overdue fines, relying on data Bromberg said shows fines hurt low-income people whose children lose library privileges after fines accumulate. Under the new system, lenders will be given four weeks past the overdue date to either return books or be charged with the full cost of the book.
Eliminating fines will cost the system about $150,000 a year. The timing is hardly a textbook case of how to argue for more taxpayer funding, even if Bromberg insists the library will save money by no longer needing to track fines.
Underlying this entire discussion, however, is the future of libraries themselves.
In a recent piece for Forbes.com, Steve Denning asked readers to consider all the things smartphones have replaced, beginning with address books, video cameras, maps, alarm clocks and home phones and continuing through a long list to airline ticket counters, restaurant guides, pocket calculators and, yes, books.
Amid this disruptive chaos, libraries may continue to have a role as places where important information is gathered and supplied freely, or where groups can meet to discuss things important to the community. But it’s not reasonable to think they can continue exactly as they always have.
Leaders of the city’s library system will argue they already have changed, and this is true. But the new age may require much more radical change, including rethinking the need for as many, or as big, library branches.
Predicting the future of libraries can be as difficult as predicting the future of newspapers, but the uncertainty ought to be part of this discussion, and it ought to give pause to anyone considering a tax increase for maintenance.