When it comes to city services, what's the difference between an amenity and a necessity? Does the line move when times get tough? As the recession and state tax restructuring put more and more pressure on municipal governments, those are the kinds of questions we need to be asking: not just how to keep providing the same services, but whether those services still need to be delivered and, if they do, whether there are better ways to deliver them.
There's a case study in Indianapolis, where, as columnist Matthew Tully notes, the same city that's spent $150 million to renovate and expand the Central Library and is spending $12.5 million to make over Georgia Street for some "visionary" concept and planning a massive amount to bail out the Pacers is also planning to close six local library branches. In today's world, with so much information going digital and so available for relatively modest amounts, it's hard to justify a library as a necessity. But Tully talks with a patron of one of those branches -- Fountain Square -- who makes a strong case for the library as an amentity that makes city life more tolerable:
It's small and, to be honest, it doesn't have a lot of books," he said of his local branch. "But kids don't care. As soon as I walk in with my kids, the librarians stop what they're doing and read to them."
[. . .]
Beeler talked of the library experience: teens reading graphic novels not far from senior citizens browsing through gardening books. People looking for work on computers while kids and their parents study the children's book section.
City leaders often talk about improving the urban environment. The most important part of such an environment is strong neighborhoods -- walkable neighborhoods filled with gathering spots.
Actually, that makes the case for the branch libraries much better than it does for the main library. Likewise, with all the private recreational facilities available today, you could make a much better case for neighborhood "pocket" parks than for the big ones like Foster and Franke. But what about the things that make urban living bearable -- don't people who can't afford to belong to Spiece deserve them, too? Well, how about letting private companies bid on operation of some of the big parks to run at a profit (charging for things like golf and tennis) and giving the city a set fee or a percentage of the profits to be used to finance those pocket parks. That may be a totally unworkable idea that hardly anybody will buy into, but it's the kind of proposal we at least need to be talking about. Other people may -- surely will - have better ideas.
Even as he disparages the Georgia Street and Pacers-bailout expenditures, Tully is quick to say he is "not arguing against thaose ideas." But if you don't want libraries cut and aren't willing to question things like the bailout, where are you willing to cut? We can't just keep funding everything. Choices have to be made.