Civic Pride Versus Minnesota-Tax-o-Phobia: Vote Yes on Aberdeen Library Bond

About 70 people attended last night's forum at the Krikac Auditorium on the Northern State University campus.
About 70 people attended last night’s forum at the Krikac Auditorium on the Northern State University campus.

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.

Related Reading: Ken Santema provides more extensive notes and video from the event, as does the paywalled Aberden American News.

8 Responses to Civic Pride Versus Minnesota-Tax-o-Phobia: Vote Yes on Aberdeen Library Bond

  1. Lanny V Stricherz

    If Aberdeen wants to compare libraries, it needn’t go all the way to St Cloud MN. Sioux Falls offers the most up to date library in the Midwest and one that should be the pride of SD. The main library has a staff of about 25 people and has meeting rooms for many civic events. There are 6 branches as well.

  2. David Newquist

    The thing that puzzles me about the library discussion is that no one brings up how a new library can improve its basic mission: to acquire and maintain biblio materials. Digital materials can expand and make more accessible such materials, but they do not supplant the need to have access to hard copies or the need to have personnel trained in digital techniques. The withdrawal by the Regents of the South Dakota Library Network was a major reduction in informational services. And where during the the rise of digital holdings libraries competed to get archival materials on line, much of that has been abandoned because they were of interest to specialized researchers. Both the Alexander Mitchell and Beulah Willilams at NSU have gone through deselection of materials, getting rid of holdings that had no history of being checked out, and reductions in service. The Aberdeen Public Library used to be particularly busy on Sunday afternoons and evenings with students working on papers and literary groups holding meetings, but budgetary concerns have closed it on Sundays. Both libraries used to have microfilms of the local newspaper, which students who wanted to do primary research could access, but the catalogs no longer list those holdings, although a note at the APL says it maintains hard copies of the newspaper until the microfilm comes in. In all the talk about architecture and taxes, there is little talk about how the library is able or will be able to fulfill its function as a library.

  3. Good point, David! Last night’s forum was true to that forum—Maeve King mentioned the number of items checked out this year, but there was no discussion of increasing holdings or making existing holdings more accessible.

  4. nsustudent

    Mr. Newquist’s comments on libraries are not quite complete. SD library network went away for a variety of reasons (and not just those that the Alexander Mitchell Library are providing). Any service decline stems from Alexander Mitchell, not any sort of library network. Comment about digital holdings & manuscripts is not accurate – NSU library has done a lot on this subject & continues to do so. Reduction of service at NSU library – where? Newspapers are available online at NSU as well. Don’t lump the NSU library in with Alexander Mitchell – totally separate situation.

    [CAH: Note that I cannot verify the identity of this commenter, since the commenter supplied a bogus e-mail address. I leave the response up to invite Dr. Newquist’s response; however, I direct the commenter to the DFP Comment Nymity Policy with an invitation to fearless, nymous conversation.]

  5. Corey, Minnesota also had the I-35 bridge collapse. Do we want these types of things happening here in South Dakota? Actually the city of Aberdeen has 2 bridges that are signed indicating the maximum load on the bridge shall be limited to 5 tons. One of those bridges is on 3rd Ave SE over the Mog near K-Mart. Where is the uproar over those bridges?

    In an earlier blog you indicated that the polling locating in NW Aberdeen had poor access including no sidewalk to safely get to the polling location. The polling location is the former city owned convention center that was built back in the late 1980’s if my memory is correct. 25 years later there is still nothing more than a narrow rough road (8th Ave NW) leading to the convention center. Where is the uproar over that road?

    At the town hall meeting one gentleman complained he could not find a quiet place to study for his engineering board exam at the library. I do not think it is the taxpayer’s responsibilities to make sure everyone’s need are being met every day. I would hope a grown engineer can come up with a way to study for an exam without being dependent on government to solve his issues. However that is the problem with too many people. They expect government to take care of all their problems.

    The problem across this nation is we are spending money on everything but our road, bridges and underground infrastructure. Too many people want the government to make sure there needs are being met. We are spending money on buildings just so they look nice. Many of these facilities only see use for a few hours a day.

    Yes the exterior of the library building is dated. So what; that does not impact the inside of the building or the service provided.

    Yes, the lower level does not have natural light. So what; people do not live in the library and the average person probably spends what 2 hours a week in the library and much of that time is probably in late afternoon or evening when it is dark anyway.

    It is time to fix what matters. The library sees 400 users per day. Now compare that to the number of vehicles that travel on 8th Ave NW or over the bridge on 3rd Ave SE.

    It time to VOTE NO! For the people who were complaining about some of the inside amenities of the building such as the lack of sunny places to read, all I can say is your SELFISH.

  6. Hey, Scott, didn’t the state just increase taxes to fix roads last year by $85 million? Are we getting bang for that buck yet?

    Building a new library with existing city sales tax dollars will not cause a bridge on I-29 or I-90 funded by state and federal gasoline tax dollars to collapse. The proposed Aberdeen library has no impact whatsoever on the slipshod Highway Bill our Congressional delegation is putting together with irresponsible one-time money. Don’t blame progressive local community builders; blame anti-tax anarchist Grover Norquist.

    We have a collective, community responsibility to provide all citizens with a public library. That library should offer quiet study space. That’s not a luxury; that’s a basic function of a library.

  7. Cory, well written article on the library issue. I agree with my brother, Tom, that Aberdeen has a great opportunity in front of itself and can use the construction of a new library to help boost civic pride and engagement.

    I balked slightly at your juxtaposition of the word “Republican” and “Anarchist,” but other than that your article seemed fairly level headed.

    Keep up the good work!


  8. Thanks, Dann! I’m eager to see how Tom’s design turns out… and to go sit next to the windows with a good book. Maybe I’ll go down there and write an architectural blog review when it opens!

    “Republican” and “Anarchist” make a balky juxtaposition? Ah, but if you take some of these Republicans seriously, anarchy is what you get! :-)