In the teeth of the recession, Dallas City Hall did what city halls across the country had to do.
Management took out the red pens and started slashing. People lost their jobs, and services from street repairs to parks to libraries were cut deeply.
The problem now is that the recession is behind us, yet some important city services have yet to be restored. The most egregious example appears to be our public library system.
This year, the city’s revenue stream might be its most robust in history. Property values are up more than 6 percent in Dallas vs. last year, well above the city’s conservative estimate in its last budget briefing. People are also spending money again, and sales tax revenue is expected to rise.
The city of Dallas should be able to provide the funding now to a library system that is simply inadequate to the needs of its residents. Yet, as things stand, city management is not planning to substantially increase library spending.
That’s a mistake. Few of Dallas’ peer cities around the country spend as little per resident as Dallas does, according to the Friends of the Dallas Public Library.
At $22.4 million, the current library budget is slightly smaller dollar-for-dollar than it was in 2000-01. Adjusted for inflation, the budget is actually about $10 million less than it was 14 years ago.
So what, you might say. Dallas has bigger problems than that, right? There are crime and potholes to worry about, after all.
That argument ignores not only the relatively small cost of improving the Dallas library system, but also the important and unique role that libraries play in cities.
Modern libraries aren’t places where you just check out books. They are job centers where people fill out résumés and applications. They are entertainment centers where people get their movies and music. They are learning centers where children gather after school and during the summer. And they are especially crucial in the poorest parts of our city, where people often have limited access to computers and the Internet, and where children lack after-school options.
Sadly, in Dallas, many opportunities that libraries afford residents are missed because the libraries aren’t open enough. Most branches get 40 hours of operating time a week. On Sundays and Mondays, they are typically closed. Early morning hours and late evening hours, when people often are able to use the library, aren’t available at most branches.
The list of cities in our region and around the state that keep their libraries open 60 or more hours a week is long. So is the list of cities where libraries are open 50 hours a week. There’s only one city on the list where most branches only manage to be open 40 hours a week, and that’s Dallas, according to the Friends of the Dallas Public Library.
That group has made a reasonable request this year of city management and the City Council. They are seeking an additional $10 million for libraries. That may seem like a big number. After all, it’s almost half the size of the library’s current budget.
But put it into context. That $10 million is a fraction of Dallas’ overall $1.2 billion general fund budget, a figure sure to grow this year. Even if Dallas were to increase the library budget to $32 million, we would just be on par with Austin, a city with about 400,000 fewer residents. We would still spend less than San Antonio and Phoenix, comparably populated cities with similar-size general fund budgets. Those cities spend $33.6 million and $35.5 million, respectively, on libraries.
The payoff of increased hours, additional staff and new materials is worth the price. Libraries punch well above their weight in what they give back to a community. Go into just about any Dallas Public library branch when school lets out, and you will find children there. They aren’t on the streets or sponging on television. They are reading and learning. Seniors also use libraries frequently for a host of purposes, from quietly reading to a meeting place for friends.
A decade ago, when Dallas was facing skyrocketing crime, politicians rightly promised to beef up the police force and make the city a safer place. They succeeded in that.
Public safety spending has continued to grow in Dallas at a pace that costs other services in the city. A city budget presentation shows that in 2008, in the heart of the recession, public safety spending accounted for about 60 percent of the general fund budget. It’s slightly higher than that now.
Yet spending on culture, arts and recreation, including libraries, is just 9.6 percent of the budget now vs. 10.9 percent in 2008.
The price of letting such services languish on recessionary budgets is higher than we think. The missing librarians and short hours cost our students, parents and teachers. They cost our job seekers and our seniors.
The time is now to restore what we have lost.
Updated: 25 July 2014 08:26 PM