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County supervisors raise library tax to keep facilities open

click to enlarge Katharina Fritzche and her daughter Nina walk through Santa Rosa’s distinctive arches.

MarÍa Inés Taracena

Katharina Fritzche and her daughter Nina walk through Santa Rosa’s distinctive arches.

Katharina Fritzsche walked into the Pima County Board of Supervisors' meeting last Tuesday with 64 letters and a petition with close to 200 signatures, demanding to salvage the Santa Rosa Library—one of four the county proposed to shutter last month.

"This is a resources-deprived neighborhood, the library is used tremendously," she says. After the three-minute limit to speak during the call to the audience, she handed the packet to Supervisor Ramón Valadez—whose district includes the Santa Rosa Barrio—and left.   

It was indignant for her to hear about the possible closures, as part of an effort to relieve pressure off the massive budget burdens that have trickled down from the state Capitol. An approximate $23 million in costs were passed down to the county, according to Pima County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry.

After a friend helped Fritzsche post a petition online, signatures and comments poured in: "The closing of public spaces such as this demonstrates a remarkable lack of foresight, more so than a lack of available funds;" and "I believe there are better ways of balancing the budget than taking away educational resources from the masses," were some of the thoughts people have shared in the past four weeks.

Fritzsche also spent hours outside Drachman Montessori Elementary School—merely a parking lot separates it from Santa Rosa—collecting statements from other parents. Her daughter, Nina, is a third-grader at the title I, magnet school, and the family has squeezed all the juice from the library's resources.

For now, the community advocacy for Santa Rosa and the other libraries that would have suffered (the county also planned to shorten hours of operation at eight more) paid off. 

That Tuesday, the supervisors tentatively approved Valadez's suggestion for an 8-cent tax rate for the library district, which would bring in the roughly $1.5 million needed to keep the four libraries open and regular hours rolling, says Melinda Cervantes, Pima County Public Library's executive director. "It doesn't cover everything we need, but it gets us really close," she says. Earlier this year, she says the libraries stopped purchasing new print and electronic books, as well as other materials. Some of those sacrifices will remain, if it means all libraries survive.

Supervisors Sharon Bronson and Richard Elías agreed with Valadez, while Supervisors Ray Carroll and Ally Miller voted against the tentative budget. Miller argued that the state's shift in costs onto the county doesn't really affect the libraries' budget.

In total, the library district is reportedly about $8 million in the red. Libraries get dedicated funding from a secondary property tax, and since the Great Recession, property values have dropped, while the demand for certain amenities has increased.

"I have worked in this profession for 35 years and I have never closed a library, it is bad news, everybody loses when libraries close," Cervantes says. "We have gotten tremendous support to work through this...we just caught a very difficult year. It is not easy to move forward, and it will cost everybody a little more."

From now until the county officially adopts a budget June 16, the library district has to hand over extensive reports of its operation costs.

"Libraries are very complex organizations," Cervantes says. "When you have 500 or 600 employees delivering hundreds of different services to people of all ages through the county in 27 locations, it is a lot of activity."

It is much more than books, though.

Throughout the 13 years Santa Rosa has stood in the heart of the neighborhood, it has morphed into a cultural and educational satellite for the community. Next door, there is an early childhood development center, and a community building across the street.

Children and teens hang out there after school and on summer-break days. "What are they going to do if it closes? There is no place for them to go besides the streets," Fritzsche says.

If you step in on a Monday or Wednesday afternoon, the community room is packed with people attending Literacy Connects' beginner English class for adults. The computers are constantly in use, either by Drachman students, or residents putting together their resumes. For the large Pima County population without access to the Internet or computers, libraries play a significant role in their lives. It's how they search for jobs and stay connected.

To Fritzsche, libraries are great equalizers—doors wide open for all ages, all ethnicities and socio-economic backgrounds.

When she walks into Santa Rosa, the staff knows her and she knows them. The small library off 22nd Street and 10th Avenue is a good taste of the barrio's tight-knit nature.

Since Fritzsche decided to take on the Santa Rosa advocacy role, she's also witnessed the valuable effect that lies in making a few phone calls and writing even a handful of letters. It's all about making yourself heard to the elected officials who are supposed to represent your best interests.

"I still did not convince all of the supervisors, I would like to show them the importance of (Santa Rosa)," she says. "It also showed (Valadez) the support he has from the neighborhood, backing up his vote. You're putting yourself on the line every time you vote for taxing the citizens, now he knows the community is behind him."

The tentative budget doesn't mean the libraries are in the safe zone, she says as she sits in Santa Rosa's community room.

"If you want taxpayers, which is essentially what every government wants, they are not going to get them unless they improve people's lives, and this is a way to improve people's lives," she says. "It opens up the world, it only enriches the community."

More by María Inés Taracena

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