Editorial / Help Pequot up after shameful sucker punch
Published 5:06 pm, Thursday, April 11, 2013
In a Three Stooges movie, a sucker punch would be delivered something like this:
Moe approaches Curly and extends his left arm to the side, thumb pointing up.
"Look at my thumb," Moe says.
And as the unsuspecting Curly turns his head to look at Moe's left thumb, he gets clobbered by the cast-iron skillet in Moe's right hand.
Cue the sound of chirping birds as Curly keels over.
Amusing or not, the sucker punch -- or a variation on it -- is a staple of slapstick and Road Runner cartoons.
Like Curly, the library's attention was distracted in one direction, and it got clocked from another side with no warning.
And library officials say the blow could be fatal.
The iconic, 124-year-old library in Southport is quasi-public. It is a private, nonprofit association, but it is open to the public, and for as long as anyone can remember, the town has provided about one-third of its operating budget. The town considers the money a charitable contribution.
Municipal money is tight, however, and with some taxpayers clamoring for austerity, the town wisely decided to begin reviewing its charitable practices. Those practices include direct grants, such as the Pequot has received, and in-kind donations, such as leasing town-owned property to nonprofits at rents far below market rates.
A committee was appointed to conduct the charity review, and it has been meeting with nonprofits that get town support, gathering information. Pequot officials met last month with the panel, which has made no recommendations and whose work is ongoing.
In the meantime, the Board of Selectmen approved a $350,000 contribution to the Pequot in its 2013-2014 town budget proposal, so the library's funding for the next fiscal year seemed secure -- at least most of it.
But in its review of the budget last week, the Board of Finance on a 5-4 vote chopped the entire contribution to the Pequot Library. It came with no warning and was the only charitable gift the board eliminated entirely. Library officials say the Pequot will have to close without the money.
Maybe the Pequot was an easy target -- deservedly or not.
Library officials say about 80 percent of its patrons are from outside the Southport zip code, but many perceive the Pequot as a place for Southporters. It has an endowment and valuable rare-book collection. And the elegant stone building projects an image of wealth, pedigree and privilege.
That image is further enhanced by its location on Pequot Avenue amid some of the town's most stately homes, by the classical music recitals and art shows it hosts and by events such as its Derby Day party -- when on Kentucky Derby day, vintage antique autos roll up to the library and well-heeled people pay up to $300 to don broad-brim hats and sip mint juleps.
That the Derby Day fest is a fundraiser may be lost on those who think the Pequot could raise $350,000 just by ringing the doorbells of a half dozen of its neighbors.
But neither the library's assets, nor programs nor the depth of its neighbors' pockets is the point.
The point is that various arms of town government -- albeit perhaps not knowing what each other were up to -- collectively set up the Pequot to look one way, and then bashed it from behind with the cast-iron skillet.
The Pequot had every right to believe that while the town was taking a hard look at future contributions, the library's immediate funding was intact.
So as the library focused on the future, the finance board blind sided it with the present.
Without warning or precedence, the action was patently unfair and must be rectified. The Representative Town Meeting has the power to restore the $350,000 donation to the Pequot and should do it.
Some believe the Pequot Library is a rare treasure in Fairfield, a handsome edifice that offers unique programs to all residents. Some see it as a province of privilege that doesn't deserve taxpayer support.
It's a worthy debate.
But it should be conducted in fair deliberations about all gifts to nonprofits and on a timetable that allows alternative funding to be explored.
Let's not be stooges. Leave the sucker punches to Moe and Curly.