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A fair tax for libraries PDF Print E-mail
Written by Ozaukee Press Editoral Board   
Wednesday, 17 February 2010 17:22

Ozaukee communities without libraries should support a small library tax increase in fairness and to protect a vital service for their residents

When the Fredonia Village Board and the Fredonia Town Board were asked in January to approve resolutions supporting a five-year plan to provide adequate funding for library services, both boards deferred action in order to study the request further. Prudence and due diligence are commendable, but in this case the trustees should have acted without hesitation to endorse a proposal that is clearly a benefit to their constituents.

It’s a benefit even though it comes with a small tax increase.

The five-year plan prepared by the Ozaukee Sheboygan Joint County Library Planning Committee calls for increasing the library tax paid by property owners in communities that don’t have libraries, including the Village and Town of Fredonia, by 1% a year from 2013 through 2015.

The added tax would be tiny and fair, yet important in helping to ensure the future of the smooth-working system that makes comprehensive library services available to residents of communities that don’t have their own libraries.

Seven Ozaukee County villages and townships do not operate libraries, but their residents are entitled to use the libraries in the Eastern Shores Library System, including those in Port Washington, Saukville, Grafton, Cedarburg, Mequon-Thiensville and Cedar Grove.

And thousands of them do. Roughly 20% to 30% of the users of libraries in Ozaukee County are residents who do not have local libraries.

Currently libraries are reimbursed for less than 90% of the cost of providing this service. This is not only unfair to the taxpayers in the communities that have libraries, but it undermines the sustainabilty of what is a marvelous arrangement for making the manifold benefits of public libraries universally accessible.

The joint committee plan logically and equitably calls for increasing the reimbursement to 100%. In the increments suggested, this would be almost painless to taxpayers, a few extra dollars over four years.

Beyond the services its makes available to the people in non-library communities, the county library tax helps protect the integrity of the institution of the free library, which has survived since ancient times as a testament to the value civilizations place on the collection and dissemination of knowledge.

Charging users to pay for library services—a fee to rent a book, for example—is a bad idea that crops up from time to time, recently at last month’s Fredonia Town Board meeting, where it was suggested that, as an alternative to increasing the library tax, libraries charge for services.

David Weinhold, director of the Eastern Shore system, had an excellent answer for that: “Libraries are built on the premise that free services should be provided to all. It is the philosophy of the public good.”

Precisely. And thanks to the county library tax, this public good is available to people whose communities do not yet have the wherewithal to establish their own libraries.

Fredonia—the village and the town—should give their enthusiastic support to the plan to gives libraries fair reimbursement for this service, as should every Ozaukee community without a library.

A miscarriage of justice PDF Print E-mail
Written by Ozaukee Press Editoral Board   
Wednesday, 10 February 2010 15:55

Laying off prosecutors counties depend on to handle crime would be an unacceptable way for the state to deal with a budget shortfall, labor dispute

Believe District Attorney Adam Gerol when he says Ozaukee County’s system of justice would suffer if the state lay offs one of the three prosecutors in his office.

“We would not be able to keep up with our caseload,” Gerol told Ozaukee Press last month. “Some crimes that are charged in state court would simply have to be dealt with as ordinance violations. Already we’ve had to ratchet up the threshold for criminal charges because of the workload.”

Gerol’s concern, which is shared by prosecutors throughout the state, was triggered by a Dec. 30 letter from the Wisconsin Department of Administration notifying the Association of State Prosecutors of its intent to lay off assistant district attorneys in counties throughout Wisconsin.

The other shoe has yet to drop, but state officials said they will announce their plan to address a $1.3 million shortfall in the state prosecutor’s budget shortly. For now, those officials are not saying how many prosecutors are in danger of losing their jobs or which counties will be affected.

The issue is, in part, the product of a labor dispute between the Association of State Prosecutors, the union representing 424 assistant district attorneys, and that state over the number of furlough days prosecutors should have to take. The union is accusing the state of unfair treatment and state is threatening layoffs.

It’s difficult to tell how much of the state’s layoff threat is bargaining hyperbole, but the consequences of counties like Ozaukee having to make do with one less prosecutor is serious enough to warrant concern.   

According to the state’s own formula, district attorney’s offices throughout Wisconsin are understaffed. Ozaukee County is no exception. The DA’s office here has functioned with three prosecutors since 1978, when the third circuit court was added, but the state formula, based on the number of serious crimes prosecuted, calls for more than four.

The argument that reducing the number of Ozaukee County prosecutors would compromise our local justice system is an open and shut case.

The pace of the court system, often not that terribly swift now, would bog down. Victims would have to wait longer for justice and the restitution they rely on to make them whole. The accused would be left waiting for their day in court and a ruling on their fate.

Serious cases — violent crimes, drug cases, identity theft and other forms of fraud — would tax prosecutors to the limit, leaving them to choose between devoting less time to comparatively minor cases or giving short shrift to the types of crimes that most offend society.

Perhaps most important in a relatively low crime county such as Ozaukee, prosecutors would have less time to vet accusations before deciding whether to issue charges. Prosecutors will tell you the easiest thing they could do is to sign off on the constant stream of police reports that land on their desks, but an important, albeit hidden, check on the justice system is prosecutorial discretion.

Complicating the issue is the fact district attorney’s offices straddle the line between county and state control. Ozaukee County voters elect their district attorney and Ozaukee County taxpayers cover some of the costs of the office. But it is the state that pays the salaries of prosecutors and thereby exercises a great deal of control over the local justice system.

It would be unacceptable for the state to resolve its budget problems by laying off prosecutors and essentially telling counties to deal with the problems that result.

The fact is, this issue boils down to an argument over three unpaid days off work and a budget shortfall in the district attorneys’ budget of $1.3 million — $1.3 million in a state that was faced with a $6 billion shortfall last year.

The district attorneys’ budget has already been cut by $7.7 million, to $87.5 million. Trimming it by another $1.3 million isn’t going to solve the state’s profound financial challenges, but it will affect how crimes are prosecuted.

State officials should find a way to fund the shortfall without laying off prosecutors, then, with the cooperation of assistant district attorneys’ union, work out any labor disputes in a way that won’t be an injustice to taxpayers who expect an efficient and effective system of justice.

No room at the creche for Frosty and Rudolph PDF Print E-mail
Written by Ozaukee Press Editoral Board   
Wednesday, 03 February 2010 15:28

Saukville has some good options for dealing with constitutional objections to its Nativity scene, but bringing in cartoon characters shouldn’t be one of them

The news just gets worse for the Village of Saukville’s beleaguered Nativity scene as insult is piled on injury. First the display was banished from Grady Park after a complaint from a group called Americans United for Separation of Church and State. Now village officials are talking about bringing it back next Christmas in the company of some secular Christmas characters like Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and Frosty the Snowman in an effort to make it more constitutionally acceptable.

Presumably Frosty and Rudolph would not be in the creche itself looking over the manger or next to the robed and crowned three kings, but merely putting these cartoonish characters near the Nativity scene is enough to mock the solemnity of the display.

The Nativity scene, after all, is a symbol of something as far removed from the commercialization of Christmas as can be imagined—the birth of Jesus Christ. For Christians, this is the essential meaning of Christmas. For people of any faith, or no faith, it can have meaning as a reminder of the historical roots of Christmas. In any case, it is not to be trivialized by surrounding it with made-for-profit characters.

Americans United for Separation of Church and State might have applied some of the tolerance it stands for and let Saukville’s small step over the dividing line between church and state slide. But the group pressed the issue, and it has legal precedent on its side when it maintains that the government-sponsored creche violates the First Amendment.

Many Saukville officials and residents do not like this one bit. That’s understandable, but it should be recognized that the Establishment Clause of the Constitution invoked here to ban a religious display by government also serves to protect freedom of religion for every citizen.

So what’s the village to do?

One attractive option is to take St. Peter’s United Church of Christ up on its offer to put the village’s Nativity scene on the church grounds next to Grady Park. The creche would be close to where it’s always been, and church-state purity would be assured.

If it is determined to make an end-run around constitutional objections the village could elect to sell the Nativity structure and characters to a church or other organization for, say, a dollar and then lease some land in Grady Park to the buyer as a site for the display. It would take careful vetting by the village attorney, but it might work.

A third alternative is to do nothing—keep the creche in storage and leave it to the private sector to provide Nativity scenes.

Neither the Constitution, the courts nor groups that zealously police the separation of government from religion have any say over private religious expression. Any citizen and any business can put a Nativity scene on private property, and in fact many were visible around Saukville this past Christmas. Adverse reaction to outside interference in the village’s choice of Christmas displays could result in more creches than ever, ensuring that there would be ample opportunity to view this beloved symbol of Christmas throughout the community.

None of these options would be difficult or expensive. And any one of them would be preferable to recruiting Frosty and Rudolph to save the creche at the expense of stealing its dignity.

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