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Monday, March 9, 2009

Long Beach Library Parcel Tax: Good Idea? Bad Idea?

Fifth District Councilwoman Gerrie Schipske has created the Save Our Long Beach Libraries Task Force as a reaction to budget cuts facing the City of Long Beach which will most likely have a very negative impact on the budget for the City's libraries. Schipske is proposing a parcel tax, currently being floated is approximately $35 per year per single family residence, that would be dedicated to the Long Beach Public Library.

This appears to be a good idea, a way to guarantee funding for libraries, and perhaps even increase the budget for the library system in Long Beach. Three dollars a month does not seem like a lot of money to most property owners. The cause, funding to restore, maintain and grow the library system's infrastructure and services would impact literacy and guarantee future generations would have a stable library in their community. Who is against increasing literacy, or the opportunity to become literate, in their community?

The difficulty with this tax at this time is the distrust between voters and those for whom they cast their votes. We have seen our Federal budget explode to over $3 trillion in the last month. We have seen a decade or more of fiscal irresponsibility in Sacramento where spending has out paced population by 400% and thousands of dollars of new taxes have been added to California families each year. Locally, Long Beach residents have seen the loss of $20 million imprudently invested weeks before Lehman Brothers crashed, budget deficit projections of $20 million or more in the coming years, and a belief that City Hall does not spend the tax payers' money prudently. Millions on a pier to no where for the Aquataxi, millions year in and year out for consultants to do the work for departments that are already staffed, millions in salaries for personnel that are redundant throughout the city, i.e. "spokesperson" or "community advisor" or "communications director" in every department--many of whom do not, speak, advise or communicate that is. Why should we give another $3-5 million every year to an entity that we feel has not been wisely spending our money? Further, if the parcel tax is passed will this free up the current library budget for other departments?

So how to balance the good idea and the bad idea? To increase the chances of the parcel tax passing I feel to ballot proposition needs to clearly state who will be overseeing the funds to ensure they are used only for the Long Beach library system for buidlings, books and technology. Clearly define the purpose of the funds and also state who will oversee the allocation and accounting of the funds received and spent. Oh, and this body of oversight should be removed from City Hall.

Currently there are two organizations operating as non-profits that state as their missions they support the Long Beach Public Library, the Friends of the Long Beach Public Library (Friends) and the Long Beach Public Library Foundation (Foundation). In looking at their websites it appears the Friends are affiliated directly with the library, with an "Executive Board." The names of the Executive Board and how they are selected are not listed on the site. The Foundation appears to be much more independent of the library system and while offering support and programs has a listed board of directors, none of whom currently work for the City of Long Beach. In searching through both websites neither indicates how individuals are selected to sit on their Executive Board or Board of Directors.

I bring up the selection of leadership because it may be that either of these entities, or a hybrid of their community leadership, may be the answer to an independent body to oversee the distribution of funds for library projects should one be provided for in a ballot initiative. Citizens of Long Beach would be much more likely to vote for a library parcel tax if they had assurances current or future city officials would not be able to raid the funds, or strip library funds from the General Fund, for other projects or to back fill budget shortfalls.

A parcel tax for Long Beach Public Libraries? A good idea if proper oversight, away from City Hall, is applied to the process, a bad idea of the revenue raised from the tax is loosely guarded and vulnerable to future appropriations for non-library purposes.


Bob Schilling said...

I worry less about the library -- $3 a month doesn't seem unreasonable -- than about the effectiveness of government and our lack of trust in it. I have a number of concerns:

First, I'm not sure whether government is more or less effective than private enterprise I've worked in and around all levels of government for more than 30 years, and my experience suggests that while government makes its share of mistakes, it's no worse, if no better, than most large organizations. It's beeter, than, say Enron, or AIG, or Generl Motors, and probably not as agile or bang-for-dollar effective as Google or UPS or Caterpillar. And, as in priivate business, some agencies are much better than others. Think of the difference between the New Orleans Parish Water Boards and the US Coast Guard.

I would agree that government generally is less effective than it used to be. What I would add is that it's not an accident, and it's not their fault. We have been starving government for resources at all levels ever since 1980, a movement that reached a frenzy in the Bush Administration. We reduced taxes and increased military spending, leaving us with a huge deficit and precious little money to spend on domestic programs. This was mirrored at the local level -- certainly in California -- with the NO NEW TAXES creed of the Republican Party. The problem, of course, is that without enough people, equipment and -- critically -- information technology -- our government agencies CANNOT be effective. What we're doing is comparable to starving someone and then beating them because they don't work hard enough and make too many mistakes.

Then there is the woeful lack on knowledge of the average voter. I maintain that most people don't trouble themselves enough to have a grounded understanding of the government they're supposed to ultimately oversee. Most people don't know squat, frankly, about the social service needs of Long Beach, or its streets, or its water systems, or its crime problems. Or anything else. Here's my point. RUNNING A CITY OF A HALF MILLION PEOPLE, OR A STATE OF 35 MILLION PEOPLE, ISN'T SOMETHING THAT CAN BE DONE WITH JUST HARD WORK AND COMMON SENSE. IT'S TREMENDOUSLY COMPLEX, AND REQUIRES HIGH LEVELS OF COMPETENTCY JUST TO "STAY EVEN." Caustic remarks that disparage people who have devoted serious educations and a good part of their lives to the public good is short-sighted, and in my view ethcially suspect. After all, it's Joe The Plumber, in aggregate, who elected the officials who run governments, and who ultimately decide what those governments will or will not do.

That leaves us with elected officials and those who elect them. First, as voters we generally remain willfully ignorant about even the most important issues that affect us. Second, we have, all of us, engaged in a destructive, vicious war of corrosive disparagement of government and its mission. Snide, sneering references to "stuipidity," taken completely out of context, make certain that no one in any government post, no matter how essential to our lives (think of County Public Health, or the Public Works people who make sure the Vincent Thomas Bridge is safe to cross) can ever be "here and proud and right out loud." No wonder government doesn't work so well.

And the last point: IT'S YOUR GOVERNMENT. YOU ELECT THE PEOPLE THAT RUN IT. IF YOU DON'T LIKE THE RESULTS, VOTE FOR SOMEBODY ELSE. As we can see from the recent changes in federal policy, elections matter. If we don't like the direction government has taken, let's vote different people into office. You perhaps??? Me??? Any takers???

Dennis C Smith said...

Not so Mr. Schilling, the Bush Administration did not starve the government--in fact after the tax cuts and until 2008 the Treasury had record revenues every single year. Why? Because the economy grew every single quarter from mid-2002 until last quarter 2008. The problem, as it is in California, has not been a lack of revenue but an over exuberance of spending--much like the American consumer.

You are right, as is the esteemed John B. Greet who has been commenting on local websites for a few years now, that we get the representatives we elect. Unfortunately in California we do not pick our representatives so much as they pick us with their geryymandered districts. There is not one person in elected office today that I voted for except Laura Doud, City Auditor of Long Beach. Even Arnold I voted yes on the recall and cast my vote for Tom McClintock. In my Congressional District there has been only Democrats--and outlying independents--on the ballot 3 of the last 4 elections. So personally I am not in a position to say I have gotten what I deserved.

Regarding the effectiveness of government versus private enterprise, it is a no brainer that private enterprise is much more effective and efficient. Your examples are such a small percentage of total private enterprise it is like say Duke Cunningham or Kwame Brown are representative of all elected officials, uh wait a minute...Seriously though, there is no down side for government waste, politicians get re-elected, or promoted in case of term limits and those who they bestow favors continue to buy their policies and votes so they funnel more of our tax money out.

And until the Fall of 2008 when Washington really screwed up by giving so much to so many, particularly GM and Chrysler, private enterprise was not wasting tax payer money but their own revenues and investors who made a risk-reward judgement to invest. Government has no risk-reward equation, just reward once elected.

All the talk from the liberals (or are the progressives now?) was "change" "change" "change" yet they elected the same people from Long Beach to Sacramento, Washington and are about to do a carbon copy for the 1st District. Change what? A Congress that was already in Democrats hands? Well maybe not. Who we send to Sacramento? Well maybe not. Who we elect to City Council? No, let's go with someone deep into the unions for support and looking to leverage that into Sacramento or Washington D.C.

If that $800 billion "stimulus" bill had instead done what Obama had said and invested strictly in infrastructure, say half the funds, and went ahead and cut everyone's (note EVERYONE's) taxes for the other $400 billion that would have been stimulus with little long term debt. Tax cuts from current levels do not starve government, they create revenue and investment. What starves government is the fat that is added during times of surplus they cannot afford later when business cycles slow or reverse. It is simple economics and math proven in economy after economy.

Thanks for your comments.

DC Frankenfeld said...

It's much ado nothing. For the parcel tax to pass, Schipske needs to get six votes on the council (unlikely) and then 2/3 of the voters need to pass it (even more unlikely). Ironic that Schipske would sponsor this tax since she was the lone vote against Foster's ill-conceived parcel tax, thus becoming the darling of Bill Pearl, Howard Jarvis taxpayers, 5th District voters, et. al.

Granted, however, that libraries are far more popular among the public than ports, airports, street repaving, sidewalk repair, police helicopters, and modernized fire stations--Foster's Prop I grab-bag.

To paraphrase the illustrious Sen. Trent Lott (R-MS), "We wouldn't be having all these problems had we voted against Norm Ryan's halving of the utility tax in 2000."

DC Frankenfeld

John Greet said...

First and foremost, I love our libraries…not only the Main but every single Branch I’ve patronized. I love that I can go online and order any book in the system and have it delivered to my local branch; that they call me when it’s arrived and I can then walk there and have it waiting for me...and all without paying one additional red cent more than my personal tax contributions to the general fund.

Did I mention I love our libraries?

That said, I must also say this. This City’s challenge is not one of income, but of expenditure. This City doesn’t take in too little, it plainly and simply spends too much. Thus the way to provide additional funding for libraries or infrastructure or public safety in the context of this very difficult economy is not to find new funding sources (i.e. assess new parcel taxes) but to, and I’ll say it slowly so those who have trouble understanding can be assisted in their comprehension, to C-U-T - - S-P-E-N-D-I-N-G.

We quite simply spend too much on programs and services that are not considered priorities or part of our “core missions”. According to the PT, as of March 3rd our General Fund Budget deficit had expanded to $19.2 million. For those of you who don’t understand basic economics, that means we have $19.2 million dollars less than we need to fully fund all of the programs and services currently included in our General Fund. Ok, so we’re in a $19.2 million dollar financial hole and that hole is getting deeper by the day.

And yet, according to the 2009 Adopted Budget we are spending:

• $393,885 for a Civil Service “Recruitment Officer” and 4 staff members whose sole “quantitative measure of service” is “20 community outreach visits”. That works out to about 1.5 “community outreach visits” per month at a cost of about $19, 694 per visit. This does not seem fiscally sound to me
• $762,372 to “automate the City Place garage payment system”. This does not seem fiscally sound to me
• $93,351 to “increase supervision and oversight at Animal Control. This does not seem fiscally sound to me
• $87,038 for a “Historic Sites Officer”. This does not seem fiscally sound to me

Now, just so I’m not accused of comparing apples to oranges, each of the projects, services and positions I’ve listed are paid for from the General Fund, you know, the same General Fund that has a $19.2 million dollar hole that’s getting deeper by the day. There are many, many more such General Fund expenditures that could be mentioned…like the $500,000 + we pay the Long Beach Museum of Art Foundation each year to continue to (According to the most recent Audit) mismanage that public asset for us. This would be the same Museum Foundation that recently defaulted on the $3.06 million museum expansion bond loan the City gave it in 1999.

I love arts and culture generally and our Museum specifically. But I do not love that it costs us so much to run or that it is run so poorly. In the current economic climate and when considering ourily-deepening deficit, we just can't afford that luxury right now.

I believe that each of these examples of General Fund…let’s call it what it is…waste, and the many other examples not listed here, should be appropriately dealt with before City Hall asks any member of the electorate for a single dime more in taxes of any kind.

City Hall’s primary problem is one of spending, not income. Plain and simple.

Dennis C Smith said...

John B do you have any facts to back up your assertion? :)

Yes it is all about spending and today "Pink Slip Friday" the Democrats and teachers are rallying together to complain about cuts in education budgets when they are two of the main culprits for the mess we are in--as I mention in newest post.

You forgot to include the Office of Sustainability they opened this year. How about sustaining a positive income statement?