Several weeks ago, Metro Times editorial intern Michelle Styczynski was outside the Troy Public Library when, as she describes it, "a young woman clenching onto a clipboard loaded with signatures approached me. She was asking library patrons as they walked past her, 'Do you want to save the library and not raise taxes?'"
Styczynski, although new to the reporting game, doesn't lack common sense. And the idea that the library could be saved without raising taxes, didn't quite seem to add up, so she began looking into the issue.
This is what she found:
Like many of Michigan's municipalities, Troy is struggling to make ends meet in the face of falling revenues. Back in February of this year, with the city looking for ways to deal with a projected budget shortfall reported to be $22 million, voters were asked to approve a 1.9-mil property tax increase. Without the hike, city officials said, the library would have to be closed in July 2011. Voters rejected the proposal, which would also have been used to keep open the city's museum and nature center, and to prevent layoffs, according to an article in the Oakland Press.
As a result, the budget ax began to swing. The City Council renegotiated employee contracts, cut back on service delivery, laid off employees, had employees take pay cuts and furlough days, contracted services to the private sector, and partnered with other communities.
(The nature center and museum lost funding, but because they are relatively small operations, nonprofits have been able to step in and pick up the slack.)
"Over the last 10 years," Councilwoman Robin Beltramini says, "Troy city government has been leaner than any of the surrounding communities both in terms of millage rate and in terms of employees per citizen."
Despite all of this, it wasn't enough to save the library.
Friends of the Troy Public Library, a nonprofit support group, has been a long-time partner with the library and initiated Proposal 1, a ballot measure that, if approved by voters on Nov. 2, would create an independent library that isn't reliant on the city's general fund for revenue. A tax hike of .9885 mils would be put in place for 10 years. It would raise $4.1 million for the library during its first year.
"Proposal 1 is the best option," says Rhonda Hendrickson, president of the Friends of the Troy Public Library, which has helped raise more than $1 million for the library between 1998 and 2010. Hendrickson says the proposal's passage will guarantee that the library will still be open next July.
But this is where things start to get complicated. Although the drive to "save the library without raising taxes" didn't collect enough signatures in time to get placed on the ballot, the effort to force the City Council to continue funding the library will continue, say its backers. In addition, three other millage increases designed to fund the library have been placed on the ballot by various citizen groups.
All three propose tax increases of between .95 and 1 mil. A .9885-mil increase, which Proposal 1 is asking for, would cost the owner of a home with a taxable value of $100,000 about $99 per year.
So, why are so many similar proposals on the ballot? We've grown accustomed to seeing dirty tricks in political contests, but it's not often that underhanded tactics are used in something as straightforward as a vote to save something like a library. But that's exactly what some are saying has happened here.
Phillip Kwik, the head of the library's public services department, says these other proposals are not an effort to help the library but to confuse voters. Friends of the Troy Public Library's Hendrickson has been quoted in the press calling the three competing proposals "bogus."
One argument raised by supporters of Proposal 1 is that it is the only one of the four that provides a guaranteed source of funding for the library over the long term, since, Hendrickson contends, competing proposals have been drafted so as to make them difficult implement.
And according to the Oakland Press, the initiator of one of the alternative proposals is being investigated for fraud.
Attempts to contact the backers of these proposals were not successful.
Meanwhile, two groups, Troy Citizens United and Friends of the Library with No New Taxes are campaigning against all the proposals.
Ed Kempen, spokesperson for Friends of the Library with No New Taxes, says his group is working on a plan to require the City Council to fund a fully functioning library that would be open at least 55 hours a week. Exactly how that would be accomplished given the city's current financial straits is unclear.
Councilwoman Baltramini says that approach won't work. "There will not be enough money to reopen a full-service public library as we have become accustomed to," she says. "I, personally, do not see such an option as a viable one."
The public library in neighboring Rochester Hills has already gone through a similar transition to what Proposal 1 is suggesting. Rochester Hills has an independent library with a six-person elected board. That library operates at a similar millage rate to the Proposal 1's, and any increase would be voted on. Christine Hage, the Rochester Hills Library Director, says she prefers this kind of operation because board members are nonpartisan and unpaid, leaving them with no outside obligation.
According to Summer Minnick of the Michigan Municipal League, the problems facing the city of Troy aren't unique. She says that the reduction of property taxes and state shared revenue "is a one-two punch for communities across the state."
In other words, tough decisions regarding the fate of institutions like public libraries and other services once thought to be automatic are only likely to increase.
Asked what she thought of the issue after diving into it, Styczynski tells News Hits: "Watching a library go under because of a measly 100 bucks or so a year would be a terrible sight to witness."