A City’s Hard Choice: New Tax or No Libraries

A City’s Hard Choice: New Tax or No Libraries

New Rochelle Journal


Ten years ago, the brick building that now holds the Huguenot Children’s Library was a graffiti-covered wreck — boarded up and charred by fire. It had not been a functioning library since the 1970’s, when budget cuts forced it to close. It sat amid broken glass and trash in a desolate city park.

”This place was a mess,” said Theresa Kump Leghorn, who was among the dozens of people who pitched in to clean up the park and re-establish the library. ”It would be such a tragedy to see it close again.”

Yet this city seems on the brink of just that. And this time, it won’t be just the charming children’s library but also the main library, a $10 million building downtown.

Because of an unusual confluence of events, voters will be asked to approve a new tax to pay for a library system that the city budget had always financed. Voters twice rejected the new tax, and unless they vote to approve it Tuesday, the city’s two libraries will have to close July 1.

If that happens, New Rochelle residents will not be able to borrow books in nearby communities, which extend that privilege only to towns that reciprocate.

So today about 100 children, most of them pupils at local public schools, rallied on the grounds of the children’s library and marched through the park to urge approval of the budget of about $3 million.

”Even though kids can’t vote, they can make a big difference,” said Samantha Weisman, a fourth grader who helped organize the rally. ”The adults are fighting and the kids are stuck in the middle. We are people, too.”

The battle over the books is, to some people, a battle for New Rochelle’s soul. The library is one of the only places in Westchester County where affluent and working class, black and white, new immigrant and native citizen live virtually side by side. In a sprawling, suburban county where shopping malls double as town squares, supporters of the library say it is one of the precious few public institutions where people from different backgrounds encounter one another.

”I moved to New Rochelle 12 or 13 years ago,” said Ms. Kump Leghorn’s husband, Thomas Leghorn, who is on the library’s board of trustees. ”I wasn’t as comfortable with the homogenous nature of certain communities. New Rochelle is a great microcosm of a large city in that the residents are so multicultural and every level of the economic and social strata is there.”

Opponents of the library tax say that it is simply a matter of affordability and accountability. In a city where homeowners average about $10,000 a year in property taxes, some question whether it is fair to ask residents for more money. They also question whether the board of trustees, which is now appointed, should have the right to levy taxes and ask whether doing so amounts to taxation without representation.

”We are not against libraries,” said Douglas A. Colety, chairman of the city’s Republican Party, who is part of a group urging voters to reject the budget. ”But taxes are very high in New Rochelle. Many seniors and people on fixed income cannot afford to live here. We have to be advocates for them, too.”

New Rochelle’s library troubles began with a 1996 state law that required small cities with populations under 125,000 to pay for their libraries the way school districts do, with a budget voted up or down by residents and a separate tax levy.

The library system had always been part of the city’s budget, and it continued that way despite the new law. In 2001, though, a State Education Department official told the library board that it had to comply with the statute. The city, facing budget problems of its own, removed the library from its spending plan earlier this year.

Last year the library’s trustees put a $3.4 million budget to a vote with little publicity. It was defeated 2,208 to 1,518, in a city with 37,000 registered voters. When they tried again a month later, the budget was defeated, but by a smaller margin.

Meanwhile, opposition to the new tax mounted and was organized into a coalition by the Republican and Conservative Parties, which started a Web site and an e-mail and lawn-sign campaign to urge voters to reject the budget.

Another group, Save Our Library, argued that homeowners’ property taxes would increase an average of only $170 a year — a small price to pay, they said, for a public resource.

On Tuesday, the budget will be a trimmed-down $2.96 million, and candidates will vie for two of the board’s seven seats. Eventually all seats on the library board will be elected, library officials said.

The stakes in the vote are high. City officials, who have paid for the libraries during the voting battles, said there was only enough money to keep the system open until June 30 if the new tax fails.

The children who rallied here today said they were the ones being shortchanged. ”Everyone uses libraries, no matter where they are from,” said Joh’vonni Smith, a sixth grader. ”If we lose our library, we won’t have any place to read books or study. That just isn’t fair.”