October 20, 2014

Detroit Public Library Will Shutter Four Branches

The Detroit Public Library Commission voted on November 15 to close four branches effective December 22. The decision will leave the city’s library system with 20 locations.

“In closing libraries, it is always with despair,” said Jo Anne Mondowney, the library’s director. “In many areas, the library is an iconic place for the community, and we recognize that. So, to close any library is a painful thing,” she said.

Mondowney said the decision was driven by declining property tax revenues that had resulted in 81 layoffs and retirements in March.

“We didn’t have enough staff left to man all the sites,” Mondowney said. “The staff has been stretched very thin, but no one wanted to close the libraries,” she said.

The library now has 361 FTEs, and the closures will not result in any more layoffs, according to Mondowney.

“I’m heartened to hear that our director states that there will be no more layoffs as a result of the commission’s decision,” said Laurie Townsend, who has worked at the library for 34 years and is president of UAW Local Union (LU) 2200, which represents 106 employees, including librarians. The library has five bargaining units represented by three unions (LU 2200, AFSCME 1259, and AFSCME 1231).

“All along, it has been the position of LU 2200 that the best way to resolve staffing concerns at the library is to recall our laid off members,” Townsend said.

The reduction in staff had resulted in an “unworkable situation,” which, when joined with the library’s declining revenue, led the commission to close the branches and “correlate public service expectations with staffing realities,” Townsend said.

“Providing substitute librarians to cover ‘gaps’ has been a big challenge for administrators and librarians alike,” Townsend said. “It has become a matter of course to close a branch for a day when there aren’t enough librarians to staff the libraries. Substituting at another branch for all or part of a day, in order to provide coverage, has become the norm rather than the exception,” she said.

Other options that were discussed with the administration included rolling branch closures, pairing branch libraries (one branch open three days a week, its partner open two days a week), and reducing service hours at some branches.

The library has been struggling with declining revenue from its dedicated property tax millage, which has shrunk from about $40 million in FY09 to about $33 million in FY11, Mondowney said. It is projected that revenues will continue to decline over the next three years as the city’s property values shrink.

Three of the four branches that are closing are in free standing buildings that the library owns. The fourth is in a leased location.

“We are looking at options for other uses in the community,” Mondowney said.

The collections in the branches that are closing will be redistributed to the system’s remaining sites.

Over the past year, Detroit had offered a number of widely varying scenarios, at one point projecting in April that up to 18 of 23 branches would be closing and 191 additional workers would be laid off. However, the library commission withdrew on May 20 this recommendation after it became clear that the library’s administration had misinterpreted tax collection projections and neglected to factor in $3 million in savings from the layoffs and retirements in March.

“It is the most difficult decision to close libraries especially during difficult economic times when people need their libraries the most,” said Judge Edward Thomas, the commission’s president. “We will continue to explore solutions to minimize the impact of the closures on these communities that are affected the most.”

Michael Kelley About Michael Kelley

Michael Kelley (mkelley@mediasourceinc.com) is the former Editor-in-Chief, Library Journal.

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