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By the Book 

Making the case for a (gasp!) new tax

"I went to the library as a kid," says Judge Frank Lucchino, "… because that's where the girls were." 

But Luchhino, a onetime county controller and now a judge in the county's Orphans Court, may be the Carnegie Library system's most important ally.

Lucchino is among the most prominent backers of Our Library, Our Future, which is seeking a property-tax referendum to help the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh. The tax would be .25 mills -- roughly $1.50 a month on the average Pittsburgh home assessed at $78,000. As this issue goes to press, campaign organizers are set to present petitions with 10,000 signatures in favor of putting a tax hike on the November ballot. 

The libraries were established, as we all know, by steel titan Andrew Carnegie. What many of us don't know is that while Carnegie bequeathed the building, he didn't pay to staff or stock it. Being Carnegie, he had a high-minded reason: "If it is right that schools should be maintained by the whole community for the well-being of the whole," he argued, "it is right also that libraries should be so maintained." 

Taxpayers do support the Carnegie libraries, through the county's Regional Asset District 1 percent sales tax. But other sources of support have dried up. City officials, for example, have cut library funding even while helping to finance new sports stadiums. As a result, library branches have scaled back hours, even in communities that need them most. 

"The Homewood Library is a great library, but it's closed Fridays and Sundays," Lucchino says. "These are communities with more than their share of crime and poverty. Does it make sense to kick kids out who want to read?" Their parents too benefit from the access: Many job want-ads are published online … where they may otherwise not find them.

This might seem like a bad time to campaign for a library tax. Times are tough, and with Allegheny County's property values being reassessed, no one knows what their homes will be worth next year -- or how much their tax bill will be.

And today's political climate rewards neither those who want to educate themselves, or those who want to raise taxes on anyone else.

 Washington and Harrisburg are in the grips of politicians who refuse to increase any tax, anywhere, for anything. Who suffers? Schools, for one: Pennsylvania universities are among those hardest hit in the current state budget, while some 4,000 public-school teachers have been laid off statewide. Libraries are hurting too: State funding for the Carnegie has dropped by more than $1 million over the past two years.

Maybe it's no coincidence that the anti-tax crowd so frequently attacks those who discover and disseminate knowledge: scientists, teachers, "ivory-tower elitist" professors, and of course the media. If you didn't know better -- and someday soon, maybe you won't -- you'd almost think there was a War on Information.

Not that everyone goes to the library to review their congressman's voting record, or to consult the wisdom of the ancients. Many patrons go for the same reason Lucchino once did -- to meet girls (if only on Facebook). Or to read trashy novels. Or just to stay warm. 

But libraries don't always elevate our culture: They merely give everyone a chance to share in it. Fewer and fewer institutions play that role. Today's aristocrats, unlike Carnegie, seem unconvinced that even schools should be maintained by the community: School districts are being fragmented by vouchers and charters. Our main streets are shopping malls -- even our sports palaces are designed to keep us from rubbing elbows with the luxury-box set. 

Lucchino acknowledges these challenges, but asks, "In these economic times, are you still getting a cup of Starbucks? Because this tax will cost less on a monthly basis than a cup of coffee costs in a day." If the referendum fails, Lucchino says, libraries will limp along on reduced hours. "It would be what already plagues us -- a slow erosion of community assets." 

But if nothing else, the library tax campaign gives us an opportunity: a chance to talk about enhancing community assets for a change, rather than bleeding them dry.


Speaking of Potter's Field


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