Close the public libraries in John Steinbeck's home town? They couldn't do that? "They" not only could; they almost did.
Had it happened on July 1 this year, Salinas, California, would have been the largest city in the nation without a public library. Monterey County's seat, the city has three libraries, the main one having been named after the famous writer who set several of his novels in the fertile Salinas Valley.
The near-closing was not a scare tactic. It was the city council's response to a genuine financial crisis. Having engaged in cutting, squeezing, and trimming its budgets (to borrow an early Reagan phrase) for some time, the council last December came to the moment when the cupboard was bare. It had already spent the city's $9 million reserve. There were several reasons for the dire situation: rising pension and health insurance costs, declining sales tax revenue, and the habit of the state government to dip into funds bound for the cities in order to balance its own budget.
When the city council faced its moment of truth, it took the only option available other than municipal bankruptcy: sharp cuts in services. The choices were stunning in their breadth: July 1, 2005, the beginning of a new fiscal year, close all three public libraries (the main library is where the boy Steinbeck spent time studying); close five recreation centers; cut all but emergency street repairs; eliminate street tree maintenance; lop off several new police and fire department hires; cut out school crossing guards. All of these hit Salinas hard, but it was the closing of the libraries that brought national headlines.
That these draconian measures will be reversed is testimony to a leader and large numbers of Salinas's 150,000 citizens who made a genuine grassroots campaign work. Shortly after the beginning of the year, Mayor Anna Caballero met with representatives of several civic and neighborhood groups with a plan. Phase One would be a grassroots drive to raise enough money to keep all three libraries open, at least part-time, after July 1. They called it Rally Salinas! Mayor Caballero kicked it off on February 2 with a news conference at the National Steinbeck Center, a conference and museum facility. The goal, she said, was to raise $500,000 by late June.
She formed what came to be known as the Blue Ribbon Committee. It was a cross-section of the city, with representatives of the chamber of commerce, agricultural growers and shippers association, Latino business leaders, neighborhood groups, parents, Friends of the Salinas Public Libraries, and others.
The Committee asked for volunteers, and hundreds stepped forward to make telephone calls, go door to door, assemble mailing lists, and buttonhole potential individual supporters. A tax-exempt countywide foundation agreed to be the receiver and administrate donations. Rally Salinas! went over the top, with more than $760,000 collected. The libraries were saved -- at least until January 1, 2006.
There needed to be a Phase Two, and the Rally Salinas! campaign gave the committee time to plan for it. After much discussion and some polling, they decided that a ballot issue calling for a one-half cent increase in the city sales tax would provide the funds to reverse the deep cuts. There was some risk in putting it on the special election ballot in November. Governor Schwarzenegger had called the election to put three of his favorite reforms to the voters, but at a cost of approximately $50 million. The opposition was well organized and well funded. If Salinas voted "no" on the Schwarzenegger measures, would voters add another "no" to Measure V, the local sales tax measure?
Mayor Caballero and what was now a campaign committee planned carefully. From their polling they concluded that the citizens understood that this small increase in the sales tax (which would sunset in 10 years) was the best way to solve the local problems. More than 200 volunteers contacted some 30,000 likely voters before election day.
On election day, while all of the Schwarzenegger measures went down to defeat, Salinas voted by 62 percent for Measure V, the sales tax. It is axiomatic that most conservatives never met a tax they liked; however, it would be hard not to admire the determination, elbow grease, and shoe leather expended by this grassroots citizen group. If a strong majority believes that a local tax increase is the best way to solve local problems, who is to say nay? Far better that local voters control their destinies than that it be done by politicians in the state capitol, often beholden to special interests. Besides, John Steinbeck can now rest in peace.
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