Laura Berman, DETROIT NEWS COLUMNIST
On its website, the city of Bloomfield Hills touts itself as the nation's fourth wealthiest city, with 39 percent of its "stately homes" worth more than $1 million and an outstanding public school system.
What it fails to mention is that its elite, well-educated residents won't pay for an amenity enjoyed by 99.5 percent of Michigan residents: a neighborhood public library.
Since 2003, when Bloomfield Hills opted out of a 39-year relationship with the Bloomfield Township Public Library, its 4,000 residents (median household income: $172,000 a year) have been library-less by choice.
The same city that boasts of being home to executives and sports stars, exclusive country clubs and fabulous homes, has been going cheap on borrowing books.
City Commissioner Robert Toohey urges residents to avail themselves of the "free" libraries in nearby Birmingham and Bloomfield Township. If they need to check out books, residents can buy $200 library cards, with check-out privileges, from the Troy Public Library. Fewer than 100 do so, even though Bloomfield Hills reimburses the cost.
Many Bloomfield Hills residents of all political stripes say they feel like trespassers in the Bloomfield Township library, where study rooms and some programs are reserved for taxpayers. "We feel like freeloaders, so we no longer go there," said Erich Steinmueller, a retired Chrysler executive who lives within walking distance of the township library.
A ballot proposal to re-up the contract with Bloomfield Township in 2009 failed by 90 votes. Now on Nov. 2, residents will vote on a new library initiative — a millage proposal that will enable the city to reinstate Bloomfield Township library privileges.
It also will create an unpaid Bloomfield Hills library board with the authority to contract for library services. At 0.617 mill, the proposal would cost a family with a $750,000 home about $231 a year — about what township residents pay for their library.
Larry Neal, a 21-year-Bloomfield Hills resident and former president of the Michigan Library Association, jump-started the proposal in July.
"In six days, I had 122 people who just called me up and said: 'We think this is a shame' … they're embarrassed that they don't have a library," Neal said.
Robert Toohey, a lawyer who a few years ago unsuccessfully fought Bloomfield Township's library contract all the way to the state Supreme Court, is still hammering at his failed legal argument: He contends residents shouldn't have to pay any portion of the township library's operating costs, only the cost "to check out books."
"There are people here who think they don't need to pay for a library because they'll order what they want from Amazon. It's an arrogance," said Carol Young, a Bloomfield Hills library lover.
New city residents like Dr. Homa Hasnain are sometimes surprised to discover their beautiful new home in a prestigious community doesn't include access to the nearby library.
"I was shocked," said Hasnain, whose 9-year-old couldn't participate in summer reading programs. "We thought a library is automatic. … It feels like a punishment to my daughter."
In a recent op-ed piece in the Birmingham Observer & Eccentric, Bloomfield Hills resident Christine Zambricki, an opponent to the proposal, suggested that residents can use the excellent "local libraries" in Birmingham and Bloomfield Township.
In other words, they can use those lovely "free" libraries in other cities. Libraries supported by unenlightened taxpayers still clinging to 19th-century ideas about sharing knowledge and education.
Hey, times are tough, especially when your mansion isn't worth what it once was. But before fighting taxes became the only American principle that mattered, all kinds of people, wealthy and not, recognized the public library as one of the inspiring ideas that makes us American.