There are at least three things Cuyahoga County does exceedingly well: parks and hospitals are two of them. And the third? Libraries. Which is why the recent decision by the Greater Cleveland Partnership (our area’s Chamber of Commerce for those unversed in corporate-speak) to oppose the levy for the Cuyahoga County Public Library system feels like an assault on what it means to be a resident of this county.
Cuyahoga County Public Library (CCPL) has 816,000 cardholders as of 2019 who visited their 27 branches a staggering 5 million times. 2020 marks the 10th consecutive year that our county library system has been ranked 1st in the nation by the Library Journal. Let me re-state this, TEN FREAKING YEARS IN A ROW. Imagine if the Browns won the Super Bowl just once in the last decade and how this county would respond. Meanwhile, our public library system has won their Super Bowl each of the last ten years. Yet, despite this uncategorical success, the Greater Cleveland Partnership (GCP) opposes Issue 70, the library’s continuing levy and their first since 2008. Why you ask? Well, maybe it’s due to the fact that since the CCPL has no branches downtown, the GCP might not realize it exists.
(You can read more about why CCPL is requesting the levy and what it will provide here).
Why are our libraries a model for the rest of the nation? Residents of the county and city of Cleveland deserve the lion’s share of credit for this. We use them. We fund them. We take pride in them. It’s one of the best examples of Cuyahoga County’s enlightened citizenry. A term scarcely used when describing organizations like the Greater Cleveland Partnership.
The GCP has two primary grievances with this levy. One, there are a few municipalities in the county (excluding Cleveland whose library system routinely ranks in the top 3 as well) who do not partake in the CCPL system. Lakewood and Euclid among that group. And, by the way, both of those cities have darn good library systems of their own. GCP feels the county library system should somehow engineer a merger with these cities’ libraries, even though they’re not technically allowed to do this. And two, it’s a tax. No one likes paying more in taxes. Even if it means less than $3 per month for those owning a $100,000 home, literally no one looks forward to the next day with the hope of paying more money for anything.
Yet, if we can throw public money at sports venues (over $20 million for the recent Q deal alone) and continue forcing people in gentrified neighborhoods to pay accelerating property taxes while multimillionaire developers a block away are freed from those same taxes for 30 years, our area Chamber of Commerce can support our library systems. By the way, tax abatements like the ones wealthy developers finagle, don’t mean the taxes disappear. They’re made up elsewhere, often by higher taxes or fees on non-millionaires, aka the vast, vast majority of Cuyahoga County’s 1.2 million residents. Or worse, the costs—both measurable and immeasurable—are borne by the students’ and families of those enrolled in our public schools. And, by the teachers, secretaries, custodians, bus drivers, and others who run those schools and live in our neighborhoods.
Brent Larkin of The Plain Dealer, whose leftward populism in the last few years has been a welcome relief in the midst of local journalistic chaos, recently took umbrage with the GCP’s decision as well. Calling the decision “petty,” he points out the hypocrisy of the GCP and their massive salaries while highlighting the disingenuousness of the organization’s opposition to the $18 million the levy would bring CCPL annually.
Where I diverge from Larkin is when he more than once refers to Joe Roman, the GCP’s head, in laudatory terms. Yes, Roman played a role in bringing the Rock Hall and the 2016 RNC to Cleveland. That’s great. But, the reality is that Roman has spent 35 years at the seat of power in Cleveland. Envision for a moment the worst player in the NBA. Say he plays 35 minutes in any given game. Even he will get an occasional rebound. Maybe even make a basket or two. Right? Positions like the one Roman holds have certain built-in guarantees for success, and failure too, that belie the kudos they get for simply holding that particular job. The frank reality is that we need to develop a new measuring stick for success in our region. Being the head of a business-centric organization for three decades in a city that has hemorrhaged jobs and residents, is not a success. It’s a failure.
Libraries are as basic to America, and American democracy as anything else. Here in Cleveland and Cuyahoga County today they are much more than book shelves and library cards. They are community meeting places. For business and for pleasure. Our libraries are on the cutting edge of digital lending, mobile learning, and civic promotion. Even more, as was the case for 328,826 county residents last year, the CCPL hosts meaningful programs on any number of constructive topics. And, at some Cleveland Public Library branches for example, they serve as a refuge for area residents from a social environment members of the GCP can’t fathom. Lastly, they are a repository not just of books and website clicks, but in a world where even once-undeniable facts are called into question, they serve as the ultimate antidote to the purveyors of fake news and the ignorance they glorify. I must confess some vivid personal memories of visiting the CCPL branch closest to me as a child. The pervasive sense of limitlessness all in one building was magical, even as a youngster who couldn’t yet pronounce the words “corporate negligence.”
To drive the point home even more starkly, in the world of Wi-Fi that we all inhabit today, where internet connectivity is an essential component of social mobility, thousands rely on our libraries as their primary, or even sole, source for internet access. Just this week Cleveland was named not just the poorest big city in the country, but also dead last in terms of residents’ access to the internet. This is an outright embarrassment, and yet fully connected to the debate over issue 70. In 2019, CCPL saw its members log over 3 million hours of internet use. Nevertheless, the GCP can’t, or more likely simply won’t, view this in human terms they can support. For them, this levy is a line in the sand. For so many in this county it’s a lifeline.
The reality is that the GCP has no idea how the majority of Clevelanders or Cuyahoga County residents live. They have no idea what they encounter in their daily lives. They don’t know what it’s like to rely on RTA as their only means of transportation. Nor to be reliant upon a library as the sole source of internet connectivity the GCP takes for granted. Nor that the vast majority of residents don’t know what the GCP is or what they do. As a result, they oppose a library levy. So, for these reasons and more this Cuyahoga County resident votes not to endorse the Greater Cleveland Partnership.