UNDER THE HEADING “What planet have you been living on?” comes the news that some folks in Copake are circulating a petition for a ballot proposition that would ask voters to end the way the town funds the Roeliff Jansen Community Library.
Perhaps it’s a prank. Dumb stunts surface every fall around election time. Think of all the morons who come up with the clever idea of stealing or defacing political signs. What an original and creative way to express your political views, huh?
But the suggestion that signing a petition can or should lead to a cut in funding for the local public library compounds stupidity with cynicism.
The public has a right to hold libraries accountable for the way they spend tax dollars. But it turns out that when you put library operations under a microscope, they almost always look like a better bargain than you expected. The Roeliff Jansen Community Library runs on a tight budget, provide services to people of all ages, is open and accessible to everybody in the community and doesn’t charge you anything to walk through the door (or to stay at home) and use its services. And their records are, pardon the expression, an open book.
The library is chartered by the state to serve Hillsdale, Copake and Ancram. In the past, the Town Boards in those towns decided annually how much they felt like giving the library each year, regardless of need or the fairness. But that made it hard for the library to plan its budget. And the same was true for half of all other public libraries statewide. So the state adopted a law in 1995 that allowed small libraries to go directly to the voters, asking for approval of a fixed annual amount. In Hillsdale and Copake, voters had enough faith in their library to approve annual amounts in each town.
Copake now pays about $26,000 a year to support the library’s annual expenditures of around $100,000 a year. That money is not part of the town general fund or highway budget. The Town Board doesn’t control those funds. Ever since the first library vote, board members have no longer had the power to divert money for the library to some other purpose. The voters have spoken.
But this phony petition attempts to sow confusion by misleading the public into thinking that there’s some way to give the board back the power over library funding. By implication it also suggests that the library has somehow contributed to the mess the current Copake administration has made of town finances.
It’s possible that someone who supports the current majority on the board might believe that a blame-the-library campaign will distract voters from the lack of fiscal restraint shown by the majority. It’s unlikely, though, that the electorate will be hoodwinked by that nonsense for very long.
It’s also possible that the board is listening to advice from some genius who actually believes that “de-funding” the library will somehow help relieve the deficit the town faces. But anyone who believes that needs a course in remedial math.
Oh, and there’s one other factor to consider before anyone wastes time reading this anti-library petition: The bright bulb who dreamed it up knows nothing about the law. Last year a state Appellate Division Court ruled that a town board could not invent the right to torpedo library funding with a ballot measure designed to kill the authority voters have already approved. The town in this test case took its pleading to the state’s highest court, which refused to hear it. So any petition that’s out there has absolutely no legal standing.
The Roeliff Jansen Community Library is moving ahead with an exceptional new building on Route 22 in, of all places, the Town of Copake. The new library will be a major addition to the community and will undoubtedly feature prominently as the town advertises its many desirable attractions. Even without the building, the library is a popular local institution for many good reasons, and it has nothing to fear from mindless attempts to cut its funding. But this episode gives Copake voters an incentive to question the motives and the intelligence of anyone who knowingly participates in spreading this anti-library petition. Fortunately, the petitioners’ own ignorance is the best argument against giving them any more power than they already have.