Fabiola Santiago

Fabiola Santiago: Don’t balance Miami-Dade County budget by cutting out library books

In one of his off-script comments about the budget, Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez said last week that if the county had a $64-million library budget, “we wouldn’t know what to do with it.”

Once again, the mayor underestimated the engaged citizens of Miami-Dade, otherwise known as patrons of our public libraries.

In a slam-dunk display of support for libraries at a budget hearing Tuesday, his constituents showed the mayor and the County Commission what to do with the money, creatively delivering their message.

They held a read-a-thon outside the chambers.

They delivered stacks of signed petitions, 3,000 of them, in favor of restoring library funding to $64 million, even if that means an increase in property taxes.

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And, in a simple, but brilliant move, a librarian passed out children’s books to commissioners, who eagerly began perusing them.

One giggled at a fitting title: The Jungle Book.

Another complained that the book he was holding had an old picture of LeBron James wearing a Cavaliers jersey.

“They’re old books, we’re not buying new ones,” the librarian said to laughter.

At the height of the commissioners’ amusement – they were spellbound like children during storytime – the books began to be collected back.

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It was a perfect metaphor for a library system that was once hailed as one of the best in the nation – and now cannot afford to buy new titles.

If there had been a scoreboard by the time library supporters were done speaking, it would’ve looked like this: Libraries 100; Mayor Gimenez: 0.

This well-intentioned but misguided mayor has vowed to veto any budget passed by commissioners with a tax hike – despite the fact that the library millage increase would amount to about $15 a year for the average household.

The services libraries provide far outweigh that kind of cost and it’s the reason they enjoy tremendous support across diverse communities.

Library use leads to better performance in academics, people testified, and they bridge income disparities by providing free access to technology, workshops, and assistance with paperwork. Young people find mentorship, guidance in research – and “a safe place” to be, as several young people vouched in some of the most compelling commentary I heard.

It’s no wonder that even one of the mayor’s political consultants, pushing Gimenez’s “hold the line” budget strategy, was acknowledging on television the other day that libraries are “at the root of our democracy.” When he spoke of the value of libraries, it was hard to tell what side he was on.

So why is honoring the community’s support of literacy such a hard-sell for Gimenez? Did he not hear it loud enough last year when support for libraries was equally overwhelming?

What would patrons do with $64 million?

Restore the Miami-Dade Public Library System to its original glory before itstaxpayer designated funding was funneled elsewhere and the system’s well-managed reserves were depleted.

Don’t balance the budget on the backs of librarians who make $30,000-$45,000 a year. Don’t close branches or reduce hours. Don’t short-change programming; elevate it.

And order new books, even if they depict again with LeBron in a Cavaliers jersey.

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