We’re all used to the annual budget dance. The mayor proposes spending cuts, organizations that would suffer funding losses decry the cuts and lawmakers who oversee or are somehow affiliated with the groups vow to fight the cuts.
Sometimes the impact spending reductions would have is exaggerated, or the truth is bent just a little for political purposes. Take the Fire Department. Every year its defenders say Mayor Bloomberg wants to cut 20 “firehouses” citywide. But it’s not true — what he keeps proposing is the closure of 20 fire companies. Since you usually have two fire companies within one firehouse, you can’t say he wants to cut 20 firehouses.
Whether closing any fire companies is a wise idea is another matter, but the debate should be an honest one.
Then there are those organizations that truly would suffer a tremendous negative impact if the budget were to go through as the mayor proposes. Tops on the list is the Queens Library system. Well-known as the highest-circulation library in the country, it’s the intellectual envy of the world, helping to keep New Yorkers of all ages educated.
But the mayor is looking to cut its city funding by $26.7 million, a whopping 31 percent. That’s a slash in support that simply cannot stand. It would cause the closure of 18 branches across the borough, according to the library’s spokeswoman, and make it so that the remainder are closed more days than they’re open. As many as 600 people engaged in valuable work could lose their jobs. It would be an intellectual and cultural travesty.
The library system is not like some small art gallery or playhouse or other cultural entity that relies on public largesse to keep operating. Its role in Queens is unique, and maintaining public libraries is among any municipality’s most important functions, right up there with safety, transportation and land use. Though technically a private entity, the Queens Library gets the bulk of its funding from the city. It’s an invaluable resource for students, job hunters, book lovers and more. Its branches provide employment information to new immigrants, hold seminars on everything from ID theft to human trafficking and entertain the community with concerts and other social events. They send books to the homebound and provide the setting for after-school tutoring. In high-crime communities they offer a refuge for children who want to avoid the streets. The list of services outlined at queenslibrary.org seems to go on forever. As Borough President Helen Marshall said at a pro-library rally on Tuesday, keeping libraries open is “a measure of our success as a government.”
There are many other areas where the city could find $26.7 million without having such a major impact on the people, such by reducing the ongoing tax breaks that go to national companies located in Times Square, as Councilman James Sanders Jr. of Laurelton suggests. It made sense to offer the breaks to lure big names to 42nd Street back when it needed cleaning up, but no more. It’s time some of those chains stand or fall on their own. And that’s just one idea.
The Queens Library can’t stand on its own, without city support. It’s not a profit-making entity and never could be.
Libraries have been a key part of the American landscape since Benjamin Franklin established the first one in Philadelphia in 1731 (which still exists). During the Great Depression, the Queens Library system stayed open seven days a week; and the economy was in far worse condition then than it is now. Are we really a lesser people, a lesser city, than we were then? We hope not. Budget negotiations between the mayor and City Council will tell the story.