Community comes together in support of public library funding
Maria Luisa Paul | Wednesday, September 11, 2019
In bold black letters, a neon pink sign read “What in the world would we do without libraries?” outside of the City Council building. Another one, splashed with bright yellow and white symbols, said “I’m kind of a big deal, I’m the library.” The sentiment plastered in these posters was carried into the South Bend Common Council, where more than 200 residents of St. Joseph County awaited the results of their opposition to a proposed tax plan.
A public hearing held on Tuesday would decide the fate of the county’s public libraries’ funding. The proposed redistribution of local income tax (LIT) — known as Resolution 7-19 — implied that St. Joseph County Public Libraries (SJCPL) would lose half a million dollars from its budget in order to fund a county 911 call center.
As such, students, mothers, librarians, professors, religious leaders and business-owners all took it upon themselves to demonstrate their support for SJCPL, filling the room up to its maximum capacity. Within seven minutes, the meeting was concluded, and the advocates walked away victorious.
Once council president Rafael Morton asked for a motion to table the resolution, a thunderous applause was heard across the room. Attendees beamed with happiness and embraced each other, signaling the importance that SJCPL holds in the county for them, and then filed out of the room.
The impact the plan would have on the community caused uproar and sparked protests. Council members did not present any arguments in favor of the resolution during the hearing, but instead only commented that public opposition was one of the main reasons behind their decision to drop the proposal.
According to SJCPL, the unanticipated cut would incur a 24% loss of its LIT revenue, which is used to pay for maintenance, salaries, utilities and materials. Moreover, it would cause one of its 11 branches to close, leaving about 7,500 people without a library.
Jennifer Henecke, the communications manager at SJCPL, said a great group of people had mobilized in order to express their disagreement with Resolution 7-19.
“We’re overwhelmed that the community showed,” Henecke said. “Throughout this whole issue, we’ve just seen an outpour and 350 people joined us for a march on Thursday from the library to the City Building. We know that they sent thousands of emails and phone calls, and shared our social media posts. We are just so grateful to the community for coming out and showing what the library means to them.”
Henecke said even members of the Notre Dame community have shown their support. The SJCPL Communications Manager said she was happy that Notre Dame felt included in the community and conversation, as well.
For Debra Futa, SJCPL executive director, the libraries play an important role in the residents’ life, as it offers “more than leather-bound books,” as a sign placed in front of the City Council building stated in thick white letters.
“Libraries do so much more than just have books and materials,” Futa said. “We are community centers, we work with literacy, and we are work-force development. Kids come after school, so we are a safe place for them to go between school and home. There’s access to technology and the Internet.”
While celebrating the victory outside of the Common Council room, attendees, such as Ina Kahil, expressed the significance that SJCPL has for them.
“I can’t imagine not having access to public libraries because its one of the only places where I see people from all walks of life and just the idea of it being curtailed would be heartbreaking to me,” Kahil said.
Rabbi Karen Companez, also in attendance, also expressed support for library funding.
“Libraries are essential to society,” Companez said. “It’s one of the most basic ways that we learn, by reading books.”
Of about 20 different people The Observer asked about the resolution, all were in opposition to the resolution.
Though the next steps regarding the 911 center’s funding are still unclear, Futa said she looked forward to having a dialogue with elected officials about alternatives.
“It’s not that we think that 911 isn’t important in the community,” Futa said. “It’s that we don’t think the funds should be redistributed and have libraries and other entities be punished for that.”
County council members said they are still considering different alternatives to find funding for the 911 call center, but have still not decided on an option.
Even though this was “the first battle,” as Futa described the public hearing, the day served to demonstrate the value of a community coming together in order to solve the issues that afflict them.
“When we started this whole thing we were saying that neighborhoods need libraries, but libraries also need their communities, and both came perfectly together tonight,” Henecke said.