In Referendum, Voters in Bridgeport, CT, Will Get a Chance To Support Library
Advocates draw on little-known law for ballot measure; would restore library spending
Norman Oder -- Library Journal, 09/28/2009
- Would allocate 1 mill for the library
- Resistance from city officials
- Need to identify likely voters for low-turnout election
In a pathbreaking effort for urban libraries in Connecticut, supporters of the beleaguered Bridgeport Public Library (BPL) have drawn on a long-obscure law to get a referendum on the ballot November 3 that would force the city to reallocate tax revenues and spend one mill—or about 45% more than the current anemic allotment—on the library.
Library advocates, who formed the Liberate Libraries Committee to advance the measure, see it as a last-ditch effort. A quarter-century ago, the library had 101 employees, while a decade ago the figure was 68; now it is 55. In the past two years, BPL has suffered a 16% budget cut.
“We finally decided, what have we got to lose, they’re going to kill us anyhow,” board president Jim O’Donnell told LJ. “If we get killed politically and we lose, they can’t cut us any more than they have.” As of now, if a staffer is out sick, a department or branch may have to close. Further cuts will lead to loss of hours at the main library or the closing of one or more of the four branches.
The current library budget is about $4.8 million, including benefits and utility costs, which represents .69 mills. The library is asking for 1 mill, or $6.9 million, which would represent nearly $50 per capita (up from the current $34.50) for a service population of 139,000.
O’Donnell said that, in 1985, the city spent 1.25% of its budget on the library; passage of the measure would mean the library got 1.42% of the budget, but, in O’Donnell’s words, it would simply restore the library to an inflation-adjusted level.
"It would mean six days of service in our neighborhoods,” he said, and enough capital money to replace two storefront branches with full-service libraries. “It also means the possibility of Sunday hours at the main library,” he said, plus more computers and restoring the book budget.
Can a vote work?
Can the vote pass? Clearly, city officials are not happy about a measure that would hamstring their capacity to allocate funds to city departments.
Initially, the Town Clerk refused to accept the petition for a referendum, which relies on a state law regarding libraries directed to towns and boroughs. Advocates noted that Bridgeport’s city charter said it would be responsible for all the duties and obligations imposed by state laws on towns, and a Superior Court Judge agreed. Only 50 signatures were needed on the petition.
Now Bridgeport Mayor Bill Finch, O’Donnell said, officially supports letting the people decide. However, “They do not want this to happen," O'Donnell said. "They believe we’re forcing their hand to fund the library in the appropriate way.” After all, he noted, a 1990 ordinance sets library funding at 2.33 mills, which has never been implemented.
“We’re in the process of identifying prime voters and library users,” said O’Donnell, noting that the public is generally apathetic, leading to low-turnout elections. The largest turnout comes not in the general election but in the Democratic primaries.
The problem: the committee doesn’t have the money to do mass mailings and instead will rely on other, less expensive forms of outreach. Those connected with other urban libraries in Connecticut are watching carefully, O'Donnell said, though they may not be able to rely on the same legislation.
Framing the issue
The referendum has been portrayed in some quarters as a tax. “This referendum will not cause your taxes to increase,” the Liberate Libraries Committee says. “A yes vote is telling the Mayor and City Council members that library services are important to you and a priority for you.”
However, it does imply a need to either cut other services in a static budget or instead raise taxes.
O’Donnell responded to a local television editorial charging the millage reallocation was a tax increase. “Politicians fought in Court against using the 128-year-old law for the first time in Connecticut,” he said. “Now the people, not the politicians, will decide the library allocation in Bridgeport. While only politicians decide what to spend for other services that may not benefit you, the people of Bridgeport now have a voice to value the Library.”
“Small towns have library referenda, but not the state’s largest city,” wrote local journalist Lennie Grimaldi. “Another OIB [Only in Bridgeport] moment.”