Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Explaining the library vote

Downtown library's grand opening, August 2013
The Cedar Rapids Public Library's quest for a property tax increase met a decisive defeat on Election Day. The final margin was 45 percent to 55 percent, out of about 14,000 votes cast (16.2 percent of registered voters, which in Iowa means about 12-13 percent of those eligible). The measure would have increased the library's property tax bite from the current 4 cents per $1000 assessed valuation to 27 cents per $1000. The anticipated additional revenue of $1.6 million per year would have replaced one-time funding which ends through June 2016. The library's baseline annual budget is $6.3 million.

Without public opinion survey data, the reason(s) for the defeat will have to remain mysterious. News coverage included quotes from a couple voters, but they don't necessarily speak for everyone. Certainly it was not for lack of political resources: There were many "Yes=Smart" yard signs, no "No" signs at all that I saw, and the Gazette endorsed it.

So what follows is mostly speculative, although there is reason to consider each of these potential rationales to be experience plausible. I've ranked them in order of idiosyncrasy.
  1. The tax increase seemed like too much. We're used to voting on one-cent sales tax increases, so 27 cents per $1,000 valuation sounds large from the get-go. And while in reality that amounts to an additional $23.00 per year for a family in a $100,000 house--a lot less than the cost of an incremental increase in the sales tax--maybe it still seemed like a lot, particularly in this economy when so many people feel so vulnterable.
  2. Libraries seem like luxuries for the elite. Cedar Rapids unveiled a new library building in 2013, after the previous building had been heavily damaged by the June 2008 flood. The building is a few blocks farther from the river, features modern efficient utilities that make it much less expensive to maintain, and is altogether brighter and more pleasant to be in (not to mention some quirky features like the rooftop balcony and children's play area). According to a Pew survey (cited below), 24 percent of American adults read no books in 2013; half of all men read four or less. People who don't read books might well think the CRPL is already a palace, so why does it need more money?
  3. Anti-tax sentiment applies even to local, targeted taxes. Conventional wisdom maybe thirty years ago was that people resented federal taxes, but supported local taxes, particularly if it was clear where the tax was going. Since then I've heard "City Hall" or "downtown" spoken with as much venom as "Washington." Assuredly it doesn't help that the city has a thing for large projects of dubious productivity. Would a referendum to fund the rebuilding of Westdale Mall have passed? It's fashionable in some quarters to be against government anyhow.
  4. The value of community assets in general is not as widely appreciated as it should be. In an age where people entertain themselves in their private homes, and travel in private vehicles, and where the most prestigious sections of cities are designed to maximize privacy and space, having civic spaces and resources that are shared among all citizens is more keenly important than ever. But many of us may not be socialized to recognize it.
My hunch is that the vote reflected concerns that were broader than this specific tax or this specific library. The map of outcomes by precinct in Friday's Gazette showed a pattern typical of past referenda on street repairs and parks: strongest support from a band of precincts north of Mount Vernon Road, and strongest opposition on the edges of the city. If I'm right, it wasn't so much a referendum on the library as it was on taxes and our concept of community. In that case, those of us who believe in the city--any city--as a common project in which we all have a stake need to work harder to spread the word.

So what's next for the library? Library board president Joe Lock spoke of "shifting course." The first suggestions were they might close earlier on weeknights, close the downtown library on Sunday and the west side branch on Friday, and cut staff positions. My hope is that the library continues to be the best it can be, both as civic function and civic space, within the constraints of the current budget. Supporters, like me, need to be unstinting in proclaiming its value to the community, not to mention the value of community itself. In time, demand for library services may grow, along with willingness to pay for them.

Rick Smith, "C.R. Library Levy Fails, Board to 'Shift Course,'" Cedar Rapids Gazette, 4 November 2015, 1A, 2A

Rick Smith, "Cedar Rapids Library Board Hears First Suggestion on Budget Cuts," Cedar Rapids Gazette,  6 November 2015, 1A, 9A

Katherine Zickhur and Lee Rainie, "A Snapshot of Reading in America in 2013," Pew Research Center, 16 January 2014, http://www.pewinternet.org/2014/01/16/a-snapshot-of-reading-in-america-in-2013/

PREVIOUS POST: "New Downtown Library," 24 August 2013, http://brucefnesmith.blogspot.com/2013/08/new-downtown-library.html

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