My friend Pete mentioned on the phone today that he had read about how Salinas, the Monterey County town where John Steinbeck once lived, is about to close its public libraries -- that's right, just shut them down -- because after years of watching its costs rise and tax revenue decline, it no longer has the money to run them. And earlier this month, voters rejected three tax measures to raise $9.5 million to $12 million for city services.
They apparently did not believe or care about warnings that the libraries (a $3 million line item for next year) would be shut down and other city departments would be slashed, too (four recreation centers will be closed and the hiring of 10 new police officers will be delayed indefinitely). The electorate was in such an anti-tax mood that it even voted down a measure, placed on the ballot and supported by the business community, to raise a utility levy on the town's biggest businesses. Think about that: Someone in town said "tax us so we can help the town out," and the voters said "no way!"
So what do people in town think now? Reading the press accounts, most seem to be appalled. One resident quoted in the San Francisco Chronicle:
"My feeling is that this city is dying," said Greg Meyer, a 25-year city maintenance worker who was given a layoff notice in September and will be unemployed in January. "We are opening the gates to urban blight and increased crime. Taking the libraries out of service is like a trumpet blast heralding the coming of our fall."
And another, in the Monterey Herald:
"A town without a library is a town without a conscience," said Gerald Oehler, president of Prime Care Medical Group in Salinas.
But based on the results at the polls, you've got to wonder whether this woman, also quoted in the Chronicle, is more typical:
"Carla Lane, browsing the stacks with her two young daughters, said that if the libraries have to close, that's too bad.
" 'We come here all the time, my kids love it, and I'm a big reader myself,' said Lane, picking out an armload from the new-fiction shelf. "But I'm not sure the money is always being spent wisely.
" 'I can't believe that everything has been exhausted,' Lane said. 'If they have to close, so be it. Maybe they can just open one day a week.' "
She can't believe that everything has been exhausted. Let's see: The city fired more than 50 city workers and cut out frills like school-crossing guards and park maintenance to make it through the current fiscal year. It warned in a very public process that more would follow if the city doesn't find the money. But still, this woman seems to be saying, you can't really trust what the government says. They must have more money somewhere. They just want to rip us off for more taxes.
Her attitude is selfish and short-sighted, but it's not indefensible. Government should be accountable -- in many cases, much, much more accountable -- for how it spends tax money.
But here's what's weird to me. It's a good bet that many of the people in Salinas who voted against taxing themselves for something outrageous like keeping their libraries open and hiring more cops also voted for Bush. The voted for someone who denies accountability for the budget deficit he's engineered, the lies he employed to lead us into war in Iraq, and for the awful, bloody catastrophe the war has become. So, there are people down there who have decided that the president doesn't need to be held to as high a standard as their City Council.
(Speaking of Bush: One possible source of revenue for Salinas might be to see if the feds would refund the city's share of the cash spent so far to arrest Saddam Hussein and turn Iraq into a festering cauldron of future democracy. The National Priorities Project puts our cost for the war so far at about $146 billion. That's almost $500 for every American. So Salinas has about 150,000 people, and its share of the Iraq dough so far is just under $75 million. That'd put the town on easy street; maybe it could even open more libraries. What a choice: Blow up more stuff on the other side of the world -- for peace and security's sake -- or keep the libraries open.)