When the librarian visits my daughter’s day care in Squirrel Hill she comes to read stories and sometimes put on a puppet show. After the visit she usually leaves behind a note for the parents describing what activities she did with the kids, what books she read and why.
This past week, attached to the reading list was a different sort of note from the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh. It was a plea to vote in favor of a property tax hike.
It is difficult to decide what is more offensive: the library’s new proposed tax or using my baby girl to do it. The library should be ashamed of using children to campaign. But when it comes down to it, the proposed tax increase is the worse offense. Here’s why:
1. A new tax should have been a last resort, it wasn’t.
The Carnegie Library hardly exhausted all other options before initiating the effort to force citizens to pay higher property taxes. According to its own 2010 Annual Report; its public/private task force on sustainable library funding came up with a total of six recommendations. The new tax was No. 5 on the list. What happened to numbers one through four?
“As a representative of the community, I am keenly aware that everyone wants to — and should — contribute to the successful future of this Library system,” says task force member Lynne Squilla. “This plan enables the entire community — from individuals to corporations, government and foundations — to participate in this shared goal.”
Newsflash, Ms. Squilla: Everyone currently does contribute to the library system, through taxes we are already paying to the city. Indeed, the task force itself listed securing increases from the Allegheny Regional Asset District as its No. 2 priority. What happened to that?
Task force priorities one, three and four were all about getting individuals, corporations and local and state entities to contribute more to the library. What happened to that? Has the library collected every last dollar it can from these individuals and groups since it issued the report less than a year ago?
What about selling T-shirts, hats and bags? What about a bake sale?
2. If approved, the tax can and will go up in the future.
One of the arguments in favor of the tax is its modesty. Come on, the library suggests in its campaign literature, it’s just $2.09 a month or $25 annually on $100,000 of assessed value.
Don’t imagine that it’ll remain at this level beyond the first year. Any time a government gets a new revenue stream, it never gets rid of it — just take a look at the liquor taxes we pay for the Johnstown flood! And it almost always goes up.
3. If the library is so important to Pittsburghers, then the city should prioritize it over other services.
According to “Our Library, Our Future,” the group campaigning for the tax hike, two separate polls this year showed that more than 90 percent of respondents felt the Carnegie Library was doing a good or excellent job.” No one is disputing the good work that the library does or its importance to our community and our democracy.
The point is that we elect people to represent our interests and run the city. The way they do that is by allocating tax dollars to various community needs such as the police force, fire fighters, garbage collection, public transportation, snow removal, libraries and pensions (which are underfunded!). If the citizens wanted more money to go to the library, they would make that case to our elected leaders to prioritize the library. If these politicians aren’t prioritizing the library, then Pittsburghers should elect new representatives to carry out their wishes.
One more important point: Allegheny County properties haven’t been reassessed since 2002. If there were a reassessment, more revenue would go to Pittsburgh for important services such as the library. The library could have supported the effort to get that reassessment to happen. It didn’t. Perhaps the “citizens” who care so much about the future of the Carnegie Library don’t want a tax hike after all. So why should anyone else vote for one?
(Abby Wisse Schachter authors the New York Post’s politics blog Capital Punishment, and can be reached at Schachter at email@example.com.)