As America approaches yet another budget battle and potential government shutdown on Capitol Hill – the outcome of which is all but certain to be a whole lot of angst and modest (if any) progress towards a solution – top of mind should be how cuts from sequestration or federal government impact our local communities.
Forget the opposing cries of "it means nothing" and "the economy is going to crash" – let's focus on the measurable impacts of budget contractions and their impact on local communities using a concrete example – the Miami-Dade County library system.
The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) published numbers from 2011 that showed the federal government provided $607 billion in grants to state and local governments, accounting for roughly a quarter of spending for local and state governments that year. However, a local or state government has its own budget, its own revenues, and its own outlays for which federal payments comprise but a percentage. Thus, these governments are often tasked with making hard decisions when federal outlays are reduced and when revenue is low that impact local public resources. In the coming federal debates over the budget, the multitude of tax preferences benefiting state and local governments provide too easy a target to cut the deficit.
In Miami-Dade County, budget contractions have brought about some particularly painful proposals, including the shuttering of nearly half of the county's public libraries. Mayor Carlos Gimenez proposed closing 22 libraries, eliminating six fire and rescue trucks, and laying off 400 county employees instead of a property tax increase that was rejected by the County Commissioners. Yet it is clear from public statements by many commissioners that there is no desire to close these libraries and a recognition that a public library system is a tangible public benefit. They are being innovative and reactive to save as many of the libraries as they can.
Commissioner Xavier Suarez went so far as to offer to pay for three staff members at a branch in his district if the city would waive janitorial fees, and asked if landlords of other library properties might consider lowering library rents. Commissioner Esteban “Steve” Bovo also sought entities that might charge a lower rent to keep local libraries operating and suggested libraries might sell products to provide an additional revenue stream such as books or food. While Mayor Gimenez seemed to dismiss these proposals as unsustainable in a statement, he also noted that 11 community connection labs could open in communities where libraries are closed with better cost-effectiveness.
The combination of an aversion to tax hikes, the push for reduced federal spending, and even tax reform proposals to eliminate certain tax preferences, all contribute to the long-term constraints with maintaining local resources like libraries. As I have shared before, public libraries serve as a tremendous resource for the unemployed and underemployed, and are institutions with great benefits for our education and research priorities as a nation. That they are often among the early services to be eliminated in budget contractions confounds the fact the benefits far exceed the cost for the communities they serve.
In state and local budgets, the reality is something will always have to give. We must be innovative and flexible, much like the suggestions of these commissioners, in order to adapt to the changing needs of our communities, while still finding a way to maintain the critical services that can assist with upward mobility and lifelong learning.
The Miami-Dade Commissioner and Mayor Gimenez should be commended for trying to be responsive to the needs of their community, for recognizing the value in the institutions they are unfortunately having to cut, and for attempting to keep the end policy goal of an educated populace and a resource-rich community in mind as they deal with budget realities.