EDITORIAL: Why support the library?

ANYONE WHO’S ARGUED with a four-year-old knows facts don’t solve all problems. But treating facts like an annoyance only makes things worse when grownups do it. Look at the recent fact-free monologs of Texas Senator Ted Cruz. Besides proving that high office does not require a high regard for truth, his theatrics underscore the importance of public institutions where accuracy and openness to new ideas remain fundamental principles. Public libraries are just such places and one of them is asking for help November 5 from the communities it serves.

The Roeliff Jansen Community Library is chartered by the state to serve the Towns of Hillsdale, Copake and Ancram, an area of over 7,000 people.

Back in 2004, when the library was still in its historic home, a lovely but overcrowded, inefficient building in Hillsdale, local library supporters campaigned to convince voters in Hillsdale and Copake to tax themselves for library services. Their success provided the library with a guaranteed amount of public funding.

 

 

Ancram was not asked to participate at that time because some of its residents used libraries in northern Dutchess County. But the Ancram Town Board makes a voluntary annual contribution and recently increased the amount, though it is less than Copake and Hillsdale pay, a situation that is neither fair nor wise.

Since 2004 the library has been renamed the Roeliff Jansen Community Library (RJCL) and supporters were able, without government funding, to construct the new building on Route 22. RJCL now has an exceptionally bright, efficient structure that hums with activity seven days a week, thanks to two full-time staff members and a brigade of volunteers. Its services mix traditional library materials lending with privately supported programs, including musical performances that place it among the most active presenting organizations in the county.

Now, after nine years without an increase in contributions from its tax funding sources, the library has propositions this fall before the voters of Copake, Hillsdale and Ancram. Voters need to know that increases in library funding are not automatic–any future increase must come before taxpayers again in a two-step process that requires petitions to get on the ballot and then passage by voters at a general election. Library funding is the most open, democratic form of voter participation in this state.

In their enthusiasm library supporters sometimes tell skeptical, overtaxed voters that library service is inexpensive because it costs just pennies a day. But that spin doesn’t sit well with voters, who can make their own decisions about what’s affordable. Better that voters should ask themselves what public entity they know of–what school district or municipality–has made big improvements in service, is always open to every member of the public for free and hasn’t asked for an increase for nine years. That’s exactly what the library has done. It’s what voters say they want and seldom receive.

Remarkably, the RJCL has accomplished its transformation with less local public funding per capita than any other library in the county. If the library gets what it’s asking for from all three towns, its total amount of local funding will still be fall below the average for other Columbia County libraries.
Compared to the other two towns, the $30,000 annual funding called for in the Ancram proposition is large. But Ancram would still pay less than the other two towns, though taxpayers in each of the three towns the will pay at the same rate: $9.50 per $100,000 of assessed value.

Maybe some in Ancram will grumble about having to fund a library they don’t use. That’s understandable but it means that the grumblers aren’t accounting for the value the library adds to the multi-town region known as the Roe Jan area. This region once had an identity expressed through its farm organizations, small factories, stores, churches and railroads. It had its own school too; you can still see it on Route 22, empty for more than a decade. It’s harder now to determine what defines the region as different from other places, what unmistakably exhibits its pride and points toward the future. To discover that, drive just north of the abandoned school and pull into the RJCL.

If Ancram is still part of the Roe Jan area rather than a suburb of Dutchess County, then the Roe Jan Community Library belongs to Ancram as much as to Copake and Hillsdale. Voters in all three towns have an opportunity November 5 to renew their commitment to the library. They should vote Yes for the library proposition on their ballot.

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