Drive down East Washington Avenue — a few miles past the new high-rises — and there are neighborhoods behind the strip malls and East Towne Mall with thousands of Madison residents. They live in areas called Pumpkin Hollow, Truax and Sycamore. They are my constituents.
They are many miles from the North or East Police District, or a library or contact with city services other than the reliable snow plow driver. They are what we now call “the working poor.” Many others are just poor. They have the highest population of immigrants — from Mexico and Central America, Laos, Africa, India and everywhere else. A higher proportion of the black and white families are headed by a single parent or grandparent than in the rest of the city. Children are less prepared for kindergarten, and so on.
Although Madison has adopted as its “mission” furthering social justice and racial equity, these communities have seen little in the way of extending services to those who have the greatest needs. Where can the homeless kids who live in hotels on East Washington go after school? What about the elderly who too often are isolated and have no place to congregate?
When I first ran for office in 2015, a library and “a community place/center” was the most common need expressed by constituents. Over the next two years, the library administration conducted a study of community needs. Hundreds of thousands of dollars were set aside for a planning and design process to take place in 2017.
The 2017 budget delayed planning until 2021 and construction to the following year. The timeline changed again in 2018, when $500,000 was allocated for planning and design to be completed in that year. Little progress was made in 2018 and 2019 other than identifying the location for the building as Reindahl Park (on East Wash) and outreach to communities and stakeholders.
Since the beginning of the five-year “planning process,” I have emphasized that this center would have multiple uses. First, in a community where many cannot afford the expense of connecting to the internet, we should prioritize computer access. The second priority would be a library for pre-K through middle-school children as well as a center for literacy for adults that would include coaching spaces. Third, space for a neighborhood police officer, social service representative and a health worker (for this area with a low rate of adequate prenatal care).
For 2020, the mayor has proposed removing the Reindahl Library/Center altogether, other than to say that it may be done at some time “on the horizon” but not sure exactly when. Thus, after hundreds of thousands of dollars of studies and promises that this community asset would be realized in the not-so-distant future, the project has been shelved. Like the F-35s, is this another case of “out of sight, out of mind?”
The reasons for removing Reindahl from the construction agenda are also troubling. The mayor stated that one of the poorest communities in the city would have the burden of “identifying a funding strategy to absorb the operating costs associated with the project.” No other community in the city has been required to raise the annual funds necessary to operate a library. How can a community with the among the lowest household incomes raise $2 million each year?
Moreover, the budget statement assumes that the building is a standard library instead of a mix of a small neighborhood learning and municipal service center.
I hope that my colleagues on the Council and the mayor take the city’s stated commitment to social justice to heart and provide to these residents with the greatest need equal access to the many essential services that are provided to other Madison communities.
Samba Baldeh represents District 17 on the Madison City Council.
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