The continuing struggle to fund library service in Miami, Florida, and surrounding Dade County took a happy turn for librarians and advocates this month. On Tuesday, July 16, Miami-Dade County commissioners voted to increase the property tax in the county slightly, increasing the funding available to the Miami-Dade Public Library System (MDPLS).
The hike would leave libraries with a budget of approximately $52 million for the coming year. That figure is short of the $64 million that advocates were aiming for, but represents a major step up from the $30 million earmarked earlier this year in a budget proposed by Miami Mayor Carlos Gimenez. It also represents an increase of $8 million over this year’s library budget. The hike will prevent as many as 90 layoffs which would otherwise have been required by Gimenez’s initial budget.
It remains to be seen whether Gimenez will veto the higher property tax for libraries, which the county commissioners approved by an eight to five margin. (UPDATE: He did not. Thanks for the heads up from Gary Price at InfoDocket) The mayor, who was aiming to keep tax rates in the county altogether flat this year by cutting budgets and getting public employee unions to pay more of their own healthcare costs, has until the July 25 to make his decision. He told reporters following the vote, “I’m going to have to consider my actions.”
Library supporters respond
The tax hike was a mixed victory for library supporters. “We are obviously happy that nobody [in libraries] will be laid off. But the ability to provide enhanced services at the library is still limited,” advocate Patricia Martinez-Gormley, media chair of the Coalition to Save Our Libraries, told the Miami Herald.
John Quick, president of the Friends of Miami-Dade Public Libraries, had largely the same reaction. ““We are both happy and disappointed,” Quick told LJ. “I think it’s a win because we were able to add $22 million to the budget, but we’re disappointed because we think $64 million is what is needed.” Quick and others who sat on a task force appointed by the mayor had recommended the $64 million figure, which would have enabled the library restore branch hours that have been cut over the last four years, a well as reinstate programming that has taken a hit as MDPL budgets have dwindled since the recession began.
Community Advocates for Libraries in Miami (CALM) issued a statement after the vote thanking the more than 100 citizens who spoke at a last minute meeting, as well as 4,000 petition signers, the commissioners who voted for the (ultimately unsuccessful) $64 million budget motion, and Commissioner Heyman, whose counter proposal for funding at $53 million was adopted.
CALM added, “However, a $53 million allotted budget is still inadequate to fund a recovery from the last few years of budget cuts. There will be little money left to buy new children’s books and little money to provide maintenance for failing library facilities. There remains little money for technology upgrades, or for successful programs like Project LEAD, Connections, and YOUmedia Miami – programs that would either expand the scope of the library further and create the ‘community center’ libraries of the future that so many Commissioners continue to demand, but are apparently unwilling to fund.”
Advocates and library employees also pointed out that the ink is not dry on the higher property tax rate yet. The commission’s vote set the ceiling for the tax rate for libraries, but with a final vote to set rates is due later this fall. “This is the first step in a long budget process,” Sylvia Mora-Oña, assistant director of public services at MDPL, told LJ. “We’re cautiously optimistic, but until September 25th, anything can happen.”
For now, despite disappointment at a budget that falls short of their ultimate goals, that September meeting is where Quick and his colleagues at the Friends of the MDPLS are directing their efforts as well. “The next step is maintaining the budget we fought for in July and ensuring that’s the budget we have next year,” Quick said.
The support of community leaders is all the more crucial, because the library’s internal leadership is in transition: Raymond Santiago, director of MDPLS and LJ’s 2003 Librarian of the Year, is retiring effective August 1.
John Chrastka of EveryLibrary praised the Coalition’s work, describing its success in securing $8 million in new funding as a “huge victory” when it had been facing cuts of 50 percent.
“The Coalition is broadbased and effective,” Chrastka said. “They have worked for months to negotiate directly with County Commissioners to set the funding level the Mayor’s own Task Force wanted for sustaining the library. I applaud the Knight Foundation for its leadership in sponsoring a poll that showed that the entire community does indeed want a well-funded library. The poll cut through the hunches and disinformation, and was a significant driver of success. And when the Coalition brought out individual folks to tell the County Commissioners their authentic stories about what the Mayor’s draconian funding would do in their own lives, to their children, and across their neighborhoods, it moved the vote.”
Chrastka cautioned that this funding issue is not yet fully resolved. The Miami-Dade community has six town hall meetings between now and September to discuss the funding ceiling voted on last week, so the budget can still be cut. Last year, in fact, Mayor Gimenez attempted to enact a last-minute cut. Then, EveryLibrary’s Rapid Response Fund helped support the Save the Miami Dade Public Libraries grassroots group that ultimately became the Coalition. Chrastka said that EveryLibrary will remain committed to continuing its tactical and logistical support for the Coalition through September and beyond.
“The Coalition has articulated an agenda for sustainable funding for the Miami-Dade Public Library that may take several years to realize,” he said. [links added by LJ]