This printed in these weeks edition of the South End News.
Recently it has been reported that there is an emergency fiscal "crisis" with the Boston Public Libraries and that 10 of the 26 branch libraries may have to be shuttered. But, the numbers do not add up, and there is no real emergency. The crisis is one of honest government, proper planning, and responsible investigative journalism.
First the numbers: according to the Boston Globe, the library budget this year is 41.1 million dollars, for which it is reported there is a 3.6 million dollar shortfall, which is about nine percent. The announced response to this is to close 38 percent of the branch libraries? Clearly, more than meets the eye is going on here. Three million, six hundred thousand dollars is less than two tenths of one percent of the 2.4 billion dollar City budget, and hardly rates as a crisis forcing us to board up public institutions without a proper vetting of how important they are to our civic life.
As thoroughly explained in the enlightening book "Shock Doctrine" by Naomi Klein, governments and politicians have moved away from being honest with their citizens by creating false "crises" to force "reforms" on people that they could not do democratically. In a debate last year, Mayor Menino trumpeted the fact that he had not closed one library during our national economic meltdown. I pointed out that he had indeed closed the Kirstein library, and he retorted that it just moved to Copley Square. Will he use the same logic for these 10 branch libraries? He certainly didn’t run on a platform of closing 40 percent of our civic institutions. Closing libraries is the modern equivalent of book burning, as Adrian Walker’s bank robber subject John McGrath so aptly put it this week.
I believe the media is most to blame for this state of affairs. Why aren’t they asking these basic financial questions? As I and others such as the Municipal Research Bureau and the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation have been pointing out for years, we have an unsustainable financial model, especially when it comes to pensions and health care for government workers. This didn’t just happen in the last month, and it is no excuse to ram the shuttering of all these libraries down our throats without an honest, transparent analysis and discussion of our long-range civic goals and priorities. Last year at this time, City Hall was telling the press that we were facing 900 school layoffs and 200 police layoffs. As I wrote last year, this was again another fake "crisis" and was just being used to scare the populace so that the politicians looked good when they cut far fewer jobs, or none as in the case of policemen. I am saying it here now: the City of Boston is not going to close 10 libraries this year, City Hall is not being honest with the citizens, and if I am wrong I will personally donate $50,000 for books to the library system. I believe for the media to have their own sustainable economic model, they need to start doing their job and asking these questions, instead of asking where Tom and Gisele were last night.
We espouse that we are the Athens of America, but the recent news would suggest otherwise. We are talking about closing schools and closing libraries because of lack of money, but yet when two convenience store clerks are murdered the politicians are quick to come up with funds and proposed rules for requiring security cameras. I feel I am living more in Oceania than in Utopia. Yet the facts again point out the fallacy in their thinking. Surendra Dangol was killed in a convenience store with a security camera; it took 20 days to arrest his alleged killer. Gerardo Serrano was killed in a convenience store without a security camera; it took only four days to arrest his alleged killers. I didn’t hear a single politician ask about the cost of those proposed cameras and rules. It takes real leadership to say to a shocked and grieving public that to make a just and safe society we need to spend more on libraries and schools, and less on security cameras.
What is the solution? First of all, pray for Mother Nature to give us $7.5 million during this Easter season. What do I mean? Well, with help from Councilor Ayanna Pressley’s office I have figured out that we budgeted 15 million dollars for snow removal this year, and thankfully, we have only spent $7.5 million so far. So, if we can somehow make it through to Easter without breaking out the plows we will have a pot of gold that can help us survive the "crisis" for another year while we have a well-thought-out discussion on the future of libraries in Boston.
Mayor Menino has been talking about using eminent domain downtown; he could take back Heyward Place and put the $2 million his friend collects for parking fees tax free back into City coffers. We could ask why we are giving $30 million in tax breaks and grants to Liberty Mutual, or perhaps ask their CEO Ted Kelly to at least make a 3.6 million contribution from his $27 million dollar salary to the libraries in exchange for those credits. Most important of all, perhaps, we should ask how the taxpayers got put on the hook for $800 billion in TARP debt, but we couldn’t get 3.6 million dollars for libraries?
When my mother was working a full-time job and raising her three children on her own, we didn’t have money for a TV, let alone childcare. She had us go to the library after school and wait until she could pick us up. I sat for hours safely reading, learning, and imagining wonderful things. I wouldn’t want any child in Boston to lose out on that same sense of wonder, safety and potential that is enclosed within each and every library because of a dishonest, fake "crisis."
Kevin McCrea is a South Ender and former candidate for Mayor of Boston.