The Aberdeen American News hosted a town hall meeting last night on Aberdeen’s library bond issue. The city council approved a $7.7-million bond issue at the end of September to build a new public library. Citizens organized by former Brown County Republican Party chairman Duane Riedel referred the bond issue to a public vote, which takes place December 15.
I conducted no formal poll of last night’s audience, but the majority appeared to support the library bond issue. The audience applauded once during the entire event, in response to a statement from the floor by local library architect Thomas Hurlbert addressing multiple issues raised by panel members and questioners. In response to an argument from city councilman and bond issue opponent Todd Campbell that Aberdeen could remodel the library for less money along the lines of the three-million-dollar renovation of City Hall completed last year, Hurlbert said he loves historic buildings but that the current public library, built in 1962, does not have the same architectural value as the 100-year-old City Hall (and Hurlbert acknowledged that his grandfather’s name is on the builder’s plaque at the current library). Hurlbert said the parking concerns raised by placing the new library next to the civic arena are insignificant, given that the downtown location used to handle the daily parking and traffic rushes of old Central High School, the Bethlehem Church that used to occupy the new library site, more downtown businesses, and more activities at the Civic Arena. Hurlbert said moving the library up from Sixth Avenue into the downtown area allows for “synergy” and “sharing.”
“We’re in a real fight for our long-term well-being,” said Hurlbert. “Great planning is critical. Putting a library downtown is a piece of the puzzle” for helping Aberdeen grow, keeping people here, and making a great place for families. Hurlbert said nobody asked him to design an “average” or “cheap” facility, but he noted that his design actually costs less than comparable projects nationwide. “I want a jewel in this town… something people are going to be proud of.” That line got the audience to put their hands together.
Contrast Hurlbert’s statement with a library opponent’s statement from the floor. One man (my apologies for not catching his name) rose to challenge library board member and NSU English professor Peter Ramey, who had spoken exuberantly about the need to build a new library to accommodate families with young kids like his.
I’ll admit, I was a little bothered by Professor Ramey’s repeated use of phrases like “It’s just so obvious to me” and “the answer is clear,” phrases I usually recognize in speech and writing as a sign of stretching an argument beyond the evidence available.
But I was more bothered by the questioner’s attack on Ramey’s position. The questioner opened by noting Ramey’s mention of a nice library in St. Cloud, Minnesota, and asked, “Do we want to be Minnesota?” More specifically, the questioner said he came to South Dakota to get away from taxes like those in Minnesota.
If at any point I was inclined to simply report on the town hall meeting and let the voters drop their chips where they may, that comment tipped me toward full vocal support of the bond issue.
“Do we want to be Minnesota?” Um, heck yeah!
According to data provided by Americans for the Arts, Minnesota has twice the arts economy of Wisconsin though its populations are close to the same, and 12 1/2 times that of South Dakota.
Asked why the gap is so pronounced, Sheila Smith, director of Minnesota Citizens for the Arts (MCA), cited the state’s long history of public and private giving to the arts.
“Minnesota has benefited from 100 years of great civic leadership that has focused on the idea that everyone should have access to arts and culture no matter what their circumstances,” she said [Kristin Tillotson, “Arts’ Economic Impact Greater in Minnesota than Its Neighors,” Minneapolis Star Tribune: Artcetera, 2015.12.02].
Minnesota gets something for its taxes; South Dakota suffers for the selfish, short-sighted stinginess inherent in the questioner’s sally against Ramey, Minnesota, and taxes. Besides, as bond issue supporter and city councilman Rob Ronayne said last night, the bond issue only reallocates existing municipal sales tax revenue. Passing the measure will not raise our taxes; rejecting the measure will not lower our taxes. To say that the library bond issue is a foolish aspiration to Minnesotan fiscal frippery and hoity-toitiness is itself foolish.
In further foolishness, the questioner claimed that there are 9,084 public libraries in United States (the American Library Association says 9,082, with 8,895 central buildings and 7,641 branch buildings) but 19,400 incorporated cities. “Are libraries necessary for some place?” the questioner offered. “Apparently not.”
Out of the 19,000-plus municipalities the questioner mentioned, maybe only 1,400 are communities like Aberdeen with populations greater than 25,000. I’ll posit that nearly every one of those communities has a public library. The suggestion that a public library is not an essential public good in a community the size of Aberdeen is absurd.
It is perhaps unfair to hang a political movement on the harmful thinking of a handful of its proponents. However, the questioner’s comment followed an argument from Riedel about how his family had given donations in October to the Aberdeen Boys and Girls Club and the Safe Harbor domestic abuse shelter. “If things need to be done,” said Riedel, “people in Aberdeen will do it. We don’t need to expect government to do it all.”
Here Riedel slides from practical budgetary and architectural concerns to abstract Republican (anarchist?) sloganeering. Sure, lots of things happen without government action. But a public library is a civic institution. Every city should provide its residents with access to information and learning opportunities. Aberdeen is actually getting a deal, with the private library foundation spotting half of the $700K purchase price of the new library lot and pledging to kick in $2.1 million of the building costs. That’s more than a quarter of the project cost. How often do taxpayers get a deal like that, private donors picking up a quarter of the tab to build a police station, a road, or a water treatment plant? As panelist and library board president Maeve King said, it’s just not realistic that city government would not invest in a public library.
As I noted, the audience applauded Hurlbert’s comments; no similar applause rose for the comments of library bond opponents. And while I don’t like following the crowd, the juxtaposition of Hurlbert’s civic pride and the opponent’s fear of getting all taxy-fancy like Minnesota neatly encapsulate my reasons for following the applauding crowd on this issue and urging my neighbors to vote Yes on December 15. Approve the library bond, and let’s build this new library.