States Put the Squeeze on Cities

How We Look in 2012
How We Look in 2012 | Public Access Source

Pomona, a mostly Latino city of 150,000, has a library, but probably not for much longer. If the Pomona Library closes on August 14, as seems likely, the city will not have a library. It's hard to imagine that a city the size of Pomona -- larger than Paterson, New Jersey or Kansas City, Kansas or Syracuse, New York or Dayton, Ohio -- won't have a shelves of best sellers to check out or children's books, or, these days, computers and a free internet connection, won't have a place for teenagers to study or flirt, won't have circles of children sitting at the feet of a librarian as she reads "Charlotte's Web."

Free access to E.B. White doesn't necessarily make life in Pomona better. But having no free access will diminish Pomonans, will speed the coarsening of what passes for civic life in Pomona, which once was a city of orange groves and genteel lives, probably will widen a gap between what it means to have access to "Charlotte's Web" and the internet and what it means when there is no access.

Shutting the library will save Pomona $1.6 million. Pomona is closing one of its fire stations, too. That will help save another $2.4 million. Closing up books and fire stations will balance the city's budget only temporarily, since Pomona now has less than $2 million in reserves. That could be gone in single liability judgment or a week of bad rain.

Pomona, like most cities in California, is being squeezed by five years of recession and twenty years of state extractions of what was once local revenue.

Pomona's pending decision to close its 125-year-old library is not a special case, although the gap between the city's golden past and its present seems particularly wide. According to a recent study published by the Pew Charitable Trusts, cities nationally have been hammered by a steep drop in property tax receipts and the loss of redistributed revenue from their state government. (Together, revenue transfers and property taxes are more than half of all revenue for the average U.S. city.) The losses come at the same time that demand for city services is up.

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There is little prospect for relief. As the Pew report notes, "In fiscal year 2010, local governments lost 2.6 percent of their state aid and 2.5 percent of their property tax revenues from the previous year, for a total of $25 billion. The two revenue sources had not declined simultaneously since 1980." Average property tax revenues will likely decrease by another 4.4 percent during 2012. California could experience even higher losses.

The report gloomily concluded that "property tax receipts peaked as a share of the national economy in 2009, and will not surpass that peak until 2039."

"In many places, the impact of revenue shortfalls and increased need for services has been wide and deep," Robert Zahradnik, director of research for Pew's American Cities Project, told reporters earlier this month. "In communities across the country, residents are feeling the impact of budget challenges on their everyday lives."

"Shortfalls" are a closed library and fire station. "Impacts" are laid off city staff members and declining neighborhoods. "Budget challenges" are assertions about revenue and taxation that carefully misremember California history.

The level of everyday life in Pomona at which free access to a Clive Cussler novel makes sense is considerably distant from the level of everyday life in the California state legislature. Everyday life in the state legislature is ordinarily surreal and it doesn't typically make any sense at all.

E.B. White and children sitting around a librarian reading "Charlotte's Web" aloud seemed to make sense in Sacramento once, although that might have been merely the legislature's casual generosity, another golden promise to be forgotten, another part of the illusion that everyday life endures.

D. J. Waldie, author and historian, writes about Los Angeles on KCET's SoCal Focus and 1st and Spring blogs.

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