On the Library Tax Ballot Question

Looks like we’re going to see an especially meaty ballot this November.

The question would ask voters if they would support a property tax increase of 0.25 percent, or about $25 for every $100,000 in assessed value. The levy would raise approximately $3.25 million and help close the library system’s budget shortfall. (P-G, Amy McConnell Schaarsmith)

It’ll be interesting to see the results. As an option on the ballot with a webpage, we now have a link for “Our Library Our Future” to the right. If the “Screw the Stinkin’ Lieberries” campaign takes to the World Wide Web, we’ll let you know.

So much to weigh here. There’s something about using the Home Rule Charter or whatever to end-around a hesitant executive at a specific moment in time that seems vaguely imprudent (if that’s what it is). Perhaps more so considering that the funding which Council duly allocated, but the Mayor has long been declining to deliver, was intended to provide mere stopgap funding during a bad economy (and a not-so-great political climate for funding … useful … things) rather provide the state and major donors feelings of calm and reassurance for all time. And of course, with the City having likely passed the event horizon regarding its pension fund, and with federal and state education cuts so prevalent, Pittsburghers are likely to see their property tax bills rise before very long as it is.

Then again if we happen to value our hoary and sprawling Carnegie Library system that much, a dedicated local revenue stream may be the only way to keep it from withering away right along with the rest of City infrastructure and services. And $25 a year per hundred large doesn’t seem like a lot, especially when you know what you’re getting.

Now here’s your impertinent discussion topic for the blog post. We have Patrick Dowd leading the charge within City Hall for a libraries referendum, and Doug Shields at the head of a similar anti-drilling cohort. Once upon a time we thought — if the election went well for the forces of Greater Team Progressive — that those frustrated in loyal opposition would use their strengthened and reaffirmed political capital during this once-in-a-generation window of majority dissidence (with the dependably rebellious Shields still on the legislature) to put very different kinds of referendums on the ballot. Fundamental, structural changes. Perhaps something to alter how board, authority and commission members are appointed and removed, or perhaps even Departmental directors. Or even something confining the Mayor’s role to vetoing bills and issuing proclamations, whilst a City Manager appointed by the Council actually runs city operations. There would have been legitimate arguments to make about what “absolute power” tends to do and what one hopes the power of consensus might do instead.

However, as it turns out, the ballot will be employed only to effect changes (or reaffirmations) on very specific issues for rather specific constituencies. All of us apparently remain enthused about our Strong Mayor system of government continuing on into the foreseeable future. It’s noteworthy, considering.

36 thoughts on “On the Library Tax Ballot Question

  1. Shawn Carter

    It's NOT an amendment to the City's Home Rule Charter. If it were, one has to wonder if the requisite number of valid petitions could have been gathered in the time limits placed by state statute.

    Rather, it is a ballot question aimed t asking voters if they'll consent to being taxed for the sole purpose of giving the revenues to the City's libraries, and frankly, we should find out what the taxpayers' appetite is for supporting these civic institutions.

  2. Anonymous

    Sorry for the off-topic comment Bram, but we have discussed this topic in the past.

    I read with interest this article in the PG today:

    Bottom Dollar Food, a discount grocer out of Salisbury, N.C., has been quietly choosing store sites around the region for the past several months.

    Read more: http://www.post-gazette.com/pg/11202/1161998-100.stm?cmpid=MOSTEMAILEDBOX#ixzz1SlUTWBV6

    Gee… I found it interesting they didn't choose a site in the Hill District. Perhaps they didn't consider it economically viable?

  3. Anonymous

    Anyone who thinks a tax only on City residents is a good idea should be banished to Cleveland. Are we transporting the City back to the 1980's? As you say Bram, this is only the start for higher taxes for City residents. Hey Pittsburgh renaissance, it was fun while it lasted. Unless, maybe this is actually a diabolical scheme to tax City residents so they start moving out again, deplete tax collections and then we have to merge with the County?

  4. Anonymous

    I'd be happy to support the libraries if they didn't act like some voracious maw with an insatiable appetite. Every victory for the libraries is inevitably followed by more predictions of imminent doom, threats of closures and requests for MORE…

  5. Minuteman

    Personally, I will sign the petition, and generally I will support the effort. My preference would be for an increase to the RAD tax. I don't like the idea of families from Cranberry driving down to the CLP Main branch (ha…unrealistic, I know, they BURN books rather than reading them there) and availing themselves of yet more resources provided to them by working, tax-paying stiffs in the city.

    Commuters get more than enough from city taxpayers as things currently stand.

    I love the idea that more will be on the ballot this November. How about referendums for more stuff, like a gosh-darned FAIR commuter tax?

  6. MH

    I think they have their own library, but they don't have as many books or signs warning homeless people not to bathe in the men's room sink.

  7. MH

    Anyway, the Oakland library has a sign in the men's room that says no bathing, shaving, or laundry. If there is nothing similar in the women's room, somebody may have a discrimination case. Why don't you pop your head in and check?

  8. Foundation Flunky

    Word is that Dowd is angling for the CLP director post. Even before I heard that I was against the library tax. Now I'm really against it.

  9. Anonymous

    Maybe CLP should roll back the children's books fine that they instituted a couple years back. It's the highest in the country among similarly sized library systems. At least that would reduce the pocketbook hit that the tax will land on lower income families.

  10. Anonymous

    Dowd angling for CLP post? Now that makes sense. He sure has been spending a lot of his office's time on this endeavor. Perhaps the AG should be investigating him for clear ethics violations.

  11. MH

    If the pension plan had a nickle for every unfounded ethics violation somebody who isn't even consistent enough to pick a pseudonym spouts on the internet, especially from someone using a definition of ethics that has no grounding in morals or law, city workers could retire at 40.

  12. Bram Reichbaum

    If a public official were to retire early from their term to take a much higher paying job in X — having just used their office to spearhead a $3M per year payday for X via a tax increase — then yes. That would be ethically Pretty Suspect.

    However, there's absolutely no real indication something like that is actually happening, and so this line of chatter bears all the hallmarks of a smoke screen.

  13. Minuteman

    No council office works harder for constituents than does District 7…simple as that. If they are using their off-hours on this initiative, then rest well assured that is time well-spent regarding the wishes and inclinations of District 7 residents, who like and support their libraries in general and the Larryville branch in particular.

    The CLP Director post, due in large part to the recent good efforts of Councilman Dowd, will not be seen as a municipal pork position that one might be appointed to…not any longer, anyway.

    The anonymous commenter is so far off base that it's actually laughable.

  14. SteelCityMud

    If anything Dowd's office is spending so much time on this issue because he is an academic and historian. It is in his blood to want an educated and informed public and he knows full well what the library has contributed to the city over its long history.

    The most cynical spin on this that I can even think up is that this is such a big issue for him because L'ville is one of the places where he was most strongly challenged in the last election. He knows this is a big issue for working families in that district and so he wants to deliver.

    The suggestions that Dowd is just going to walk away from Council after his recent victory and either have the seat go vacant or let Ravenstahl (who is really the Joker to Dowd's Batman) appoint his successor is laughable.

  15. Anonymous

    actually, I think it was Foundation Flunky, not “anon” that suggested Dowd was angling. I do agree with Bram, however, that if Dowd actually did end up in a high paying job with CLP that it would be suspect. I also agree that until that happens (or if it happens) then there really isn't much to get excited about. On the flip side, I completely disagree that it would not be “viewed as a pork position.” It doesn't matter what the constituents think. If it is so important than council persons should not create the perception of impropriety by being on both council and library board. It is that simple. Lots of people hide behind non-profits to make money or filter money. I'm not saying that is what is happening here, but it is certainly not an off base topic. Isn't that exactly what Veon, et al did? The failure of democracy and transparency is when the populous doesn't care what someone does just because he/she is on “their side.” I have a feeling the progressive movement is quickly jumping that shark in Pittsburgh.

  16. MH

    Isn't that exactly what Veon, et al did?

    Veon had both elective office and the non-profit at the same time. That's a whole 'nother level, at least as far as making it very easy for the prosecutor to meet the burden of proof. Also, Veon's started from scratch and, very much unlike the CLP, had no large staff and mass of resources accumulated over the years.

  17. Ricky Moody

    I spoke to Councilman Dowd in his office last week, and I have to say, he did give a genuine vibe of honestly jus wanting to keep libraries open for public consumption of knowledge…but what do I know? Oh, and I also want to say that I think the District 2 Council Office works as hard as Council 7. Great jobs so far, Kail-Smith and Dowd.

    P.S ( Both councilmembers deserve credit for recent BOLD moves: asking people to regulate strip clubs…knocking at doors asking for more tax money handed over? To some Pittsburghers, these are cardinal sins. Again. BOLD.)

  18. Shawn Carter

    Isn't Councilman Dowd also Patrick S. Dowd, Ph.D., and isn't that Ph.D. in 19th Century European Intellectual History? Just checking. Whether he wants the position or not, whether that ever happens or not, he is certainly qualified to run the Library System, albeit, Dr. Mistick's shoes will certainly be hard to fill regardless of the qualifications of potential successors.

    As for the push for the libraries, generally and specifically, is Councilman Dowd not also a Trustee of the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh? And under the state's Library Code doesn't Council have a statutory obligation to adopt the legislation necessary to place any such question before the voters of Pittsburgh? Since Councilman Dowd is a member of the CLP Board of Trustees as one of City Council's representatives (for those of you at home, his appointment to the Board is directly linked to him being a Councilman) where is the misbehavior? As a Trustee he has a fiduciary obligation to ensure the solvency and the future viability of the Library system, so there is nothing the least bit sketchy about a Councilman who is a Board member working to place a question before the voters that has a direct impact on the Library system, possibly for years to come.

    If such behavior were to constitute a conflict, then the more proper argument would be to say that no Councilmember should be able to serve as a Trustee. We know that isn't what was intended because there are — wait for it — 4 Councilmembers who serve as Trustees.

    Not to mention a state representative, a state senator, 2 County Councilmembers, 2 Common Pleas Court judges and a Pittsburgh school board member.

    Now I don't agree with raising real estate taxes, but that is wholly separate from the issue raised here by anonymous commenters and Foundation Flunky.

    The Councilman's activities here seem sound and equally transparent.

  19. Anonymous

    You guys just aren't getting it. It isn't the serving on the library board that is the issue. It is the failure to abstain on matters that affect the city's finances that are the problem. That is especially true when four city council members sit on library board. Doesn't anyone see a problem with “majority minus one” vote to put a tax to the people when not in their formal elected role and in closed door meetings? If not, you guys have a really warped sense of democracy and transparency. At the very least, when the question comes before council, should those four not abstain from voting? Council members might honestly want to ensure the solvency of libraries, but shouldn't they first have an obligation to tax payers and ensure the solvency of the City and require some bet tightening of the library be fire levy another tax on already over taxed city residents? Don't even get me started in the non city legislators on the library board that voted foe this tax on city residents only.

  20. MH

    What the frack could be more transparent than a few dozen people asking tens thousands to sign a petition? If you say the city's pension management, I'll have no choice but to find a way to slap you through the intertubes.

    As for abstaining from voting on the matter, if it that were required across the board, then city council members shouldn't be allowed to serve on boards in general.

  21. MH

    …but shouldn't they first have an obligation to tax payers and ensure the solvency of the City

    You know anybody with a plan for that (i.e. one that shows promise for more than a couple of mayoral terms into the future), you let everyone else know, m'kay. That argument could be used just as validly against every action taken by the city of Pittsburgh.

  22. Shawn Carter


    Our Home Rule Charter provides that every member of Council serve on an authority board. Councilmembers don't abstain on legislative matters that pertain to the Authority Board that they sit on. They are expected to vote. The City is the parent government of these NGOs and Councilmembers should both vote on these matters and be held accountable for those actions.

    If the General Assembly felt differently, they would've banned such appointments, yet many state legislators are themselves appointed to state Authorities (Turnpike Commission, Liquor Control Board, PERC, etc.)

    Again, I'm not in favor of seeing property taxes increased in this manner. Complying with the Court to reassess is another issue totally.

    But if taxes are going to be raised it should definitely be at the consent of those who will be assessed this levy. What would be scandalous is if Council VOTED the tax increase unilaterally. At least this way the people, and not the politicians, choose, regardless of the outcome.

    I give the Library folks credit for starting with the premise that the people should have to make an affirmative statement on this.

    I believe we refer to that as “the consent of the governed.”

    We can talk ad nauseum about the obligation local leaders have to the fiscal solvency of this City, and for that part I would rather see taxes upped to improve the City's crumbling infrastructure, or for blight reduction, anything beside Libraries, which by the way I am a fan of.

    The only silver lining here is that we will hear from the voters what they think is best, and that's really all we can hope for.

  23. Bram Reichbaum

    I should correct myself a bit. Dowd has not taken the tack Shields is taking with the anti-drilling resolution, that is, introducing a bill for the Council to vote on placing the question on the ballot. The library allies are accomplishing that by collecting petitions from the public, albeit with Dowd's vocal support. Technically he could say (should he ever need to) that he's involved not as a member of Council but as a concerned private resident (as he is wont to do).

    So in the event of any wholly hypothetical career change, it'd be hard to accuse him of having been officially conflicted. In my opinion it'd still leave a bad taste, but it's a distinction worth making.

  24. deegazette

    I have been afraid to be the one to bring this up in my community but I feel safe here. With or without a tax increase to support library services we need to encourage those responsible to think of ways to deliver same level services while containing costs. Smarter use. Could a branch be closed if a safe and convenient shuttle were available that had the added value of more professional support for the general public once you get to the destination library?


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