Early voting has started here in Nevada and there is a lot at stake. The Silver State is a player in the presidential horse race; we have the potential to really mix things up in the House and Senate members of our congressional delegation; and there are a number of down-ticket races that are pretty meaningful. But not to be forgotten in the political blitz we’re feeling are all those ballot initiatives.
In Southern Nevada the two big questions are about whether or not to increase funding to the Clark County School District (for repairs, including fixing non-functional AC systems at 47 schools) and the Henderson District Public Libraries (to stem the loss of services and branches). At their core, both questions (Clark County question 2 and Henderson question 1, respectively) speak to the desperate need in our community for better education. Nevada ranks dead last in education. And considering that literacy plays a vital role in not only education but in a person’s future success — there are proven correlations between literacy and the drop-out rate as well as earning potential — it is hard to understand how anyone can be against either of these two ballot initiatives.
But you know how politics works. It’s Newton’s Third Law of Motion: For every motion, there is an equal and opposite motion.
In this case, opposition to both of these initiatives has come predominantly from conservative “think tank” NPRI, which sued to block the CCSD ballot question (and lost), and has launched a campaign against the HDPL funding question on their blog Write on Nevada.
With the CCSD lawsuit resolved, I am going to focus on NPRI’s campaign to defund the Henderson library district. On their blog, NPRI likes to focus on numbers. Numbers don’t lie. Or do they? Well, anyone who’s been around politics — or even just known someone particularly good with numbers — knows better. After all, polling had Sharron Angle defeating Sen. Harry Reid in the last election. So much for that math.
Earlier this month, NPRI posted an itemized list of their (cherry-picked) facts and numbers. Let’s take a look:
- NPRI is fond of remembering 1997. It’s as good a year as any to go back in time, I suppose. Back in 1996/97, the city of Henderson’s population was more than 146,000. By 2010/11, the population increased by 90 percent to more than 277,000. In their first point, NPRI says there has been a 31 percent increase in tax revenue for the HDPL special tax district (they are not governed or funded by the city of Henderson) from 1997 to 2012. I had my team at SCS headquarters crunch the numbers and that actually seems to track — depending on how NPRI is calculating inflation-adjusted dollars. But there are no kudos to HDPL for growing with its community — which boomed in that same time frame. And where NPRI really loses me is when they complain that HDPL is somehow being manipulative by using data from after the housing market crisis when the Las Vegas valley led the nation in dropped values, at 58.1 percent between June 2006 and June 2011. It is hard to call out HDPL on this point, since the entire valley has been devastated by the housing market collapse and that recovery has been one of the slowest in the nation. Citing any financial numbers since 2006 will obviously reveal how this financial crisis has effected the library district, among so many other agencies and services. If the housing crisis were some kind of isolated incident that only happened for a few months or a year and then went away, maybe then you could discount it. But the effects of the market collapse are still with us today in 63 percent of valley homeowners being underwater on their mortgages, high unemployment, and more. Sorry, NPRI, go fish.
- Next NPRI attacks the library district by saying that the number of FTE (full-time equivalent) employees has doubled since 2000. (What happened to 1997 as our base year?) According to the Rescue My Libraries campaign, in that same time HDPL added three locations which increased library square footage by 284 percent. In fact, the peak staffing year was 2009, according to HDPL Executive Director Tom Fay, when the district had 132 total employees and 103.5 FTE employees. Currently, the library has 96 total employees (a 27 percent reduction) and 77.5 FTEs (a 25 percent reduction). According to the 2010 National Center for Education Statistics, Nevada ranked 39th in library staff per 1,000 residents (0.347). Using 2011 population numbers, HDPL runs at about 0.279 staff per 1,000 residents. This is well below the 0.312 that NPRI cites. You know, I hear there are some really good books on math skills at the library…
- NPRI says HDPL salaries have far exceeded inflation. (The ballot question specifically states that, if passed, the new funds will not go to pay for staff or salaries.) Here, NPRI likes to flaunt the executive director’s paycheck as one example of fat-cat library spending. Well, if there’s one thing libraries are known for — its fat cats! Ha! Tom Fay’s salary is reported on the NPRI site to be just under $150,000 a year. I would argue that is not only a bargain (some computer specialists make considerably more, for instance), but an expense that will not ever be written off the books for any library district. Libraries need a boss running things. Otherwise, you just have people being their own boss, and I think we know how well that would work out. But getting back to the facts… According to the HDPL financial report for 2011 (PDF), the staff took a 10 percent pay cut three years ago (as well as a hiring freeze), which is still in effect. In fact, assuming two percent cost of living/inflation per year, employees have taken an effective six percent pay decrease since the salary freeze went into effect three years ago.
- Library materials have nearly doubled since 1999, according to NPRI. (Wait, I thought we were going off of 1997, I mean 2000 data.) Indeed, library materials have increased 254 percent since 1997 (140,625 materials to 497,151 materials). According to Fay, this has translated into the district matching the national average of two materials per person. And if you think nobody cares about that, here are some other numbers (courtesy of the Rescue My Library campaign): Between 1997 and 2011 circulation increased 424 percent (345,748 to 1.8 million)! So, yes, the library district has increased materials. But that’s what libraries are supposed to do! Since the population has increased, the demand for materials and services has increased exponentially. If meeting the national average is a bad thing, I don’t want to be right.
- NPRI alleges that the tax initiative is a “shell game” in which HDPL asks for funds that won’t be used for staff or salaries but that same funding would free up money elsewhere to raise salaries. Well, I suppose anyone can lie. And I suppose monies can be moved from here to there. I don’t have a crystal ball. But since NPRI is making predictions, let me make a few of my own: I predict that HDPL will have to service their 200 public computers. Going back to the FY2011 budget, the district’s budget for computer equipment was cut by $26,106. Likewise, there is a $192,000 roof improvement going on at the Green Valley Library branch. The district cut more than $356,000 from its book budget last year as well. So, I’m guessing there are plenty more areas that will be soaking up any new funding — not to mention re-opening all library branches on Mondays, which is a cost-cutting method to save as much as $75,000 annually.
- NPRI says if HDPL has to close branches (two will close if the ballot initiative fails) or cut hours of operation, it is the fault of leadership because there is plenty of money. That’s one opinion. But why don’t we ask those who would stop receiving materials through the home-bound delivery program (many of them seniors) how they will feel if they stop having that access to library materials? The home-bound delivery program will be cut by 75 percent if the tax initiative fails. Or, how about the teen group who meet at the Malcolm branch (which is facing closure)? The entire HDPL outreach department — which does work to target pre-K children with literacy programs — will also be laid off. This is like when people say, “It’s not personal. It’s business.” It’s personal to a lot of people. It matters to a lot of people.
Long story-short, NPRI does not back up its claims with enough context. Any number can sound damning without any context or a consistent baseline (1997, 1999, 2000… which year is it, NPRI?). In addition, for all its thinking (that’s what think tanks do, right?) NPRI offers little in the way of assessing a library district’s (any library district) impact on a community. Libraries are an enormously important warehouse of uncensored information; a safe haven for disenfranchised groups; an equalizer of the masses that was deemed so important to the state of the burgeoning union that Benjamin Franklin put down his own money to start the nation’s first library. (More reasons libraries are important.) Conservatives love to talk about what the Founding Fathers would say about this and that. So, I wonder what Franklin might say about campaigns to defund and belittle a library’s contribution to our society in communities big and small?
Indeed, conservatives also love to talk about how everyone should pull themselves up by their bootstraps. This, of course, presumes you have boots to begin with. But it makes me wonder how exactly a person is supposed to pull themselves up without access to free information, computers, newspapers, voting information, citizenship information, language information, and so much more. (Calculate how much your everyday materials would cost, here.) If there is no library to do that job, who does it? Would you trust a company to do the job with the same impartiality and uncensored ethic? You can’t even trust internet search engines to do that (providing you have a computer and can afford internet connection).
When it comes to Clark County Question 2 and Henderson Question 1 there is only one way to vote: YES.