Local Columnists

Dave Helling: Hotel plan and library show that taxpayers weigh the costs and benefits of public projects all the time

It’s ironic that Crosby Kemper III is against the public-private hotel deal. There are reasons to oppose the agreement, but the head of a public library is in a pretty poor position to point those reasons out.
It’s ironic that Crosby Kemper III is against the public-private hotel deal. There are reasons to oppose the agreement, but the head of a public library is in a pretty poor position to point those reasons out.

A community forum on the downtown hotel project turned into a low-level tussle this week. Heywood Sanders is skeptical about public subsidies for convention-related businesses, and the Kansas City Public Library asked him to bring his perspective to town.

The Kansas City Council may decide Thursday whether to proceed with plans for the 800-room hotel.

Hotel supporters think the library should have offered all sides of the hotel issue. Their case is pretty weak: If political support for the hotel crumbles after one speech by one opponent, it was pretty wobbly to begin with. And nothing requires the library, or any other body, to provide “balance” on any issue. The First Amendment is pretty clear on that.

Oh, and no one was forced to hear Sanders’ remarks.

At the same time, it’s ironic that library honcho Crosby Kemper III is against the public-private hotel deal. There are reasons to oppose the agreement — it disguises the full cost of the public’s investment, it may drive some caterers out of business, it may require additional subsidies — but the head of a public library is in a pretty poor position to point those reasons out.

Public libraries are as close to being socialist institutions as anything in America.

Virtually all Kansas Citians pay taxes to support the public library, even though they may never set foot inside one. That’s because voters believe the library is a social good: Having places to gather and read and discuss issues makes the whole community better, like quality schools or a good fire department.

But no community has to lend books — or operate swimming pools, for that matter, or provide an orchestra. Private companies can and do offer those amenities, for which they charge a fee. Users pay the cost, not the general public.

Taxpayers weigh the costs and value of public goods all the time and often reach arbitrary decisions. The director of the American Jazz Museum just resigned, for example, after criticism the facility relies too much on public money.

The museum gets about $450,000 a year from taxpayers, while the library gets $14 million. Is there a fundamental reason a library is more worthy of funding than a museum? None comes to mind.

Kansas Citians choose to support the library, which is their right. It’s also their right to support an arena or buses or a museum — or a hotel — because they see those entities as social goods.

Taxes are what we pay to buy things together, a concept the head of a public library should probably embrace.

To reach Dave Helling, call 816-234-4656 or send email to dhelling@kcstar.com.

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