Austin @ Large: Balancing the Books

The big hole we need libraries to fill

A detail from <i>A River Flows Through Us</i>, artist Freddie McCoo's contribution to the newly remodeled and expanded Carver Branch of the Austin Public Library. 
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The Carver's grand reopening is next Saturday, Oct. 30.
A detail from A River Flows Through Us, artist Freddie McCoo's contribution to the newly remodeled and expanded Carver Branch of the Austin Public Library.

The Carver's grand reopening is next Saturday, Oct. 30.

It's been a few months since my last library screed, so while we still have a minute before the election completely swallows our attentions, indulge me. But first, some news from down the road where the crazy people live.

There are two competing charter amendments on the Houston municipal ballot. One would require the city to limit the growth of its property tax revenue to either 4.5% a year or the combined rate of inflation and population growth, whichever is less. (Presumably, that should be inflation times population growth, rather than one plus the other, which is a meaningless measure. But that's their problem, not mine.) The other proposed amendment would put a similar cap (inflation plus-or-times population growth) on the total of all municipal revenue from all sources – the city-owned water utility, the airport, street-cut fees, whatever.

Either cap could be busted with voter approval. Imagine how likely that's going to be. Imagine how delighted future Houston leaders will be to have to put every annual budget before the voters and hope against hope it will be approved. (Welcome to California.) Incredibly to me, Mayor Bill White, instead of throwing his body in front of this train, is pushing the first proposal as a more palatable alternative to the second, spawned by citizen initiative. I have little doubt that one or the other will become law, and in the ongoing Texas race-to-the-bottom, the Bayou City will leave tired, wheezy ol' Dallas in the dust. It makes me feel good to live in Austin, where local fiscal policy is simply weak, not deranged.


Free Riders

It's stuff like this that makes me realize that Grover Norquist and the Texas Public Policy Foundation and the other fetishists who now rule our state are not just cranks and gasbags but enemies of civilization itself. I've long been too old and jaded to do more than snort at the thought of running government like a business – if that were possible, government would be a business, and there would be no government. (Ironically, these same people are also often social conservatives, deriving their views on culture and morality from times and places where their role models had no compunction at all about minutely regulating "free enterprise" for the greater good. On the issues of our day, Cotton Mather – a vocal opponent of capitalist excess and advocate for public education – would be too liberal to win an election in Houston.)

But these Houston proposals don't even make good business sense – they are, in effect, price controls, set without any regard whatsoever for the cost of the product being offered to the customers. And save the libertarian small-government crap; these same tax freaks are quite eager for the Guv'mint to provide police and fire protection, to pave and maintain their ever-larger and -longer streets, to lock up more and more of Those People, to heavily subsidize their kids' ritual accountability testing (interrupted every so often by, you know, learning, just for a change of pace) before worrying about Those People's Kids, and so on. This stuff costs as much as it costs, and that cost has little to do with inflation plus-or-times population growth.

Remember, Texas already gives its citizens the power to roll back unacceptably high municipal property taxes. But that rollback rate derives, ultimately, from the total value of the tax roll – a rather non-negotiable measure of the size of the market – not some voodoo statistic that sounded good when the Jack got passed around at Babe's Cabaret. Let the unintended consequences begin!

What the hell, you ask, does this have to do with libraries? Glad you asked. See, libraries are exactly the kind of service that gets screwed when one Norquists one's way around a city budget – "Government! Booga-booga! Go to the bookstore! Go browse the Web at home!" Actually, some conservatives, including the Bush Women, have been kind to libraries, or at least to the old, square, safe-for-the-kiddos library of stereotype and yore, as opposed to the reality-based libraries of today that refuse to play nanny or lock up Go Ask Alice. (Laura Bush may be libraries' best friend, but Lynne Cheney is their worst nightmare.) But libraries have suffered from such flaccid kindness, when offered as an unsustaining substitute for real commitment. There is no library in Texas that has enough money to even consider spending it thoughtlessly. (I'm sure my friends at Houston's libraries would agree.)


Priceless

And libraries are exactly the kind of service whose cost is unrelated to either general inflation or population growth. Neither of those has much bearing on the cost of library supplies (although, admittedly, information really does seem to want to be free), and you could say they are directly contrary indices of library demand. When the economy sucks, inflation is usually low and local population static or declining. That is when people use libraries more. Anyone who can't figure out why has no business influencing other people's lives and their cities' policies.

Okay, let's bring this baby home. My neighborhood library – the Carver Branch – is reopening next weekend after a lengthy reconstruction. It is impossible, I think, to overstate how much Carver means to Central East Austin, in ways that ultimately aren't reflected in its circulation statistics. It's where we vote. It's where we meet for almost any kind of community endeavor. It's where kids and adults both go to get the help and support – in learning and in life – that bridges gaps that don't get bridged at school or at work or at home or down on the corner. It is the stabilizing hub of a neighborhood that needs such a hub, and a place where class and culture distinctions simply melt away. And it costs what it costs.

I fully understand that setting municipal fiscal policy involves hard choices, forced trade-offs, clear priorities, living within means, and all that talk. I also understand that, if we're to support an Austin Public Library that really meets the city's needs, we have to rethink how we deliver its services at the neighborhood level. But you can only re-engineer and process-improve so far, and Austin Public Library has already gone further than most. It costs what it costs. And it's money well spent, because investing in libraries means investing in exactly the sort of community values that scare the heck out of the tax freaks who disguise their hatred of other people by projecting it onto the Guv'mint. Too many of our fellow citizens have holes in their hearts. Libraries can patch up such holes. end story

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

libraries, Bill White, Grover Norquist, Texas Public Policy Foundation, Austin Public Library, Carver Library

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