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Letter to the Editor: Libraries Take Another Hit

To the Editor:

Imagine my consternation when once again Alexandria’s libraries are on the hit list. At the same time the BikeShare program is expanded to the tune of $600,000 on top of $360,000 that taxpayers have already forked over. Wait just a minute … this is not an anti-bike proclamation! I love bikes, probably everyone reading this loves bikes. I get it. Bikes are green. Biking is good exercise. Just think, with $600,000 you could buy everyone in Alexandria a bike!

So let’s talk about what this issue is: It’s fairness in spending. One of the major responsibilities of local governments after health and safety is public education. Alexandria’s education record is not a proud one. So, what does the city do? It proposes cutting the budget for the critical public service that introduces children to books and the fun of reading and learning. The very libraries that provide research materials for avid students, that give a reading home to seniors who need to be out and about keeping themselves healthy and mentally alert. Libraries are an essential resource for the low income and middle-income families who do not have the money for high-speed Internet or dollars to buy books on Kindle or Amazon.

And yet every year Alexandria looks to the libraries for budget cuts. It’s just not right to give scarce money to programs that benefit a few. While our public libraries work, as they are intended, for everyone from three to 90, the BikeShare program, according to a Virginia Tech study, serves a very small, special group. Their demographics are eye-openers: white, young (mean age: 34.64) with 43 percent having advanced degrees. These people can afford their own bikes and are welcome to use our trolleys, the Metro, Dash bus and the water taxi to move around our very walkable, pedestrian-friendly city.

Additionally, while Alexandria’s libraries are city-owned and operated, BikeShare is a private, for-profit organization selling its program worldwide. Two large bicycle-friendly cities welcomed BikeShare but without taxpayers’ dollars: Portland, Oregon, and New York City. Mayor Bloomberg dictated that no federal or city taxes would fund its program there. Due diligence shows there are other bike-sharing programs that do not require expensive kiosks, viaCycle is one (info@viacycle.com) currently operating on George Mason’s campus. So, if BikeShare wants to expand in Alexandria, let the parent company, Alta Bicycle Share, Inc., use some of its profits and reinvest, which is what corporations are expected to do. That way, the city gets an expanded bike program but leaves Alexandria taxpayers off the hook.

Alexandria’s goal should be to extend rather than reduce hours or books at its libraries. An analysis shows that two neighborhood libraries, Duncan and Burke, with many young families living nearby together service almost 60,000 more customers per year than the main library despite Beatley having three times the number of employees and longer hours. These libraries that serve walking patrons should have their library hours increased, not cut. In contrast, Arlington appreciates the needs of working families by having libraries open to accommodate working hours. In fact, two are open on Sundays until 9 p.m. How nice is that! Since Beatley is not pedestrian friendly with only few homes nearby, perhaps, it could be closed on Sundays so that Burke, Duncan and Barrett can be open instead.

Go visit a number of area libraries as I do frequently … it’s so heartwarming to see mothers, fathers and their children there … with arms full of books, children who will discover the wonder of storytelling inside those covers. This is the beginning of a lifetime of reading for them. Walk around and see all the folks with their laptops researching and reading, the numbers at Internet computers searching for jobs. I was told that Barrett serves large numbers of new residents and other adults searching for employment, yet librarians and patrons struggle constantly with IT problems budgeted to be fixed, but have yet to happen. Budgeted money that sits there while needed services falter.

Alexandria’s libraries are special places, and they should not have to struggle and beg for money every year. They should be fully funded along with fire, police and schools. Alexandria’s libraries serve many; BikeShare is for a few. Seems easy to me. Cut BikeShare and give the city some budget relief. Just ask BikeShare to pay its way or find another vendor that will. The city is already giving them valuable public sidewalk free as well as on-street parking spaces. That’s enough.

Finally, the city should make sure taxpayers know that education and libraries do matter by restoring spending to pre-recession hours and opening at least two neighborhood libraries on Sundays. After all, education is a great leveler. All Alexandrians, rich, poor or middle class, deserve the very best you can give them in this regard.

Linda Couture

Alexandria