April 15, 2014

Libraries Around the Country Under Budget Pressure

Six branches would be closed, 33 FTEs eliminated, and Sunday hours eliminated system-wide in a worst-case budget scenario approved by the Jacksonville Public Library, FL’s board of trustees, who now have no option except to wait and see whether a lengthy city budget process takes a favorable turn.  The Jacksonville Public Library is by no means alone in its plight. Branch closures and staff cuts are on the table at library districts around the nation as the summer budget process unfolds. Omaha, NE; Flint, MI; Falls City, OR; and the huge Fulton County, GA, system all have funding issues to resolve.

Jacksonville, FL

In April, Mayor Alvin Brown’s office told all city departments to slash their budgets by 13.9 percent, which translates into a $2.4 million reduction for the Jacksonville library network, which has 20 branches and a main location.

The city budget process in Jacksonville extends from about April to October. After soliciting projections from all departments, the mayor presents a balanced budget on July 15. From there, the city council further scrutinizes individual spending requests, and can add or subtract funds. The council’s budget vote is Oct. 1. So money could be restored.

But until that happens, Jacksonville library board chairman Brenda Simmons-Hutchins said the district had no choice except prepare “the dreaded backs-against-the-wall, nothing-else-we-could-do” strategy. “Hope still springs eternal,” Simmons-Hutchins said in a telephone interview with Library Journal. “We have articulated our specific needs.”

Jacksonville’s 21 libraries serve a city of some 830,000 residents. The Maxville, Brentwood, San Marco, Willowbranch, University Park and Beaches branches would be shut under the library’s austerity budget. Only five locations are currently open on Sunday, but that service would be completely eliminated if a 13.9 percent cut is absorbed.

A year ago, JPL avoided branch closures but still trimmed 70 FTEs, Simmons-Hutchins said, after a similar round of budget wrangling. The city asked for huge cuts early in the process, she added, but significant money had been restored once by the time the city council voted on a spending plan. “We’ve been dodging bullets,” Simmons-Hutchins said. “No closures.”

That’s not to say JPL has no reason for optimism this summer as well. Mayor Brown has proposed a city pension reform plan he says would prevent the need for draconian city-wide budget cuts. In fact, the library’s mandated 13.9 percent cut would be lessened to a 4 percent cut if the council sides with Brown on pension reform. And there is grassroots support to save library branches. The group Save Our Public Libraries, Inc., is collecting petitions in support of a referendum on creation of a special taxing district to fund the JPL.

Omaha, NE

Facing the loss of about $393,000 from the 2013 and 2014 budgets, Omaha Public Library officials are mulling branch closures along with cuts in services and materials as possible strategies for meeting a city-wide belt-tightening mandate from Mayor Jean Stothert. Two librarians, a library specialist, two clerk positions, and other part-time staffing could be eliminated if the proposed budget cut takes effect.

Omaha faces a $13.5 million shortfall in its 2013 budget, according to the Omaha World-Herald.  Last month, the mayor’s office asked the library system to plan for a $175,000 budget cut (1.3 percent) from FY13 as well as a $217,787 reduction (1.6 percent) from its proposed $13.12 million FY14 spending plan. The mayor will unveil her final budget recommendation in July.

Stuart Chittenden, president of the Omaha Public Library’s board of trustees, spelled out three scenarios for accommodating the cuts in a memo to the mayor, and these options were discussed publicly on June 19. Any of these three scenarios, Chittenden told LJ, would have a “devastating” effect on the 12-branch library system.

The three scenarios are:

  • Close the W. Clark Swanson Branch on Dodge Road.
  • Shutter the Florence Branch on Bondesson Street (the smallest of the 12 libraries) and eliminate Sunday hours at the main branch on South 15th Street. The Millard Branch would also keep its doors closed on Friday.
  • Keep every location open, but reduce hours and days at every branch.

All three scenarios included a plan to reduce overall programs by 30 percent and purchase 4,500 fewer print titles.

“There’s no easy answer in deciding what to do,” Library Director Gary Wasdin said of possible branch closures. “I think we’re kind of preparing for it. I feel confident that the mayor doesn’t want to close a branch. We are still optimistic.”

Fulton County, GA

In Atlanta, with at least three new libraries expected to open next year and five more facilities to follow, Fulton County Commissioner Robb Pitts said he has a message for anyone concerned that county officials have yet to earmark funds for staffing and other operational expenses.

“We are going to fund those libraries,” Pitts told LJ in a telephone interview, “do not worry. There’s no possible scenario that this money will not be found. The voters have spoken loud and clear. And we’re going to keep our promises.”

But, Pitts admitted, as of now that money has not been found yet.

Ground was broken recently on the new Wolf Creek Branch in Atlanta, and that site will probably be the first of “three or four” new branches to open in 2014, Pitts said. About $2.5 million will be needed to fund those facilities, he added.

A bond referendum passed by voters in 2008 earmarked $275 million for a massive building program split into two phases. The first covers construction of eight new libraries and the expansion of two current branches. Once phase one is complete, 23 more existing facilities will be renovated.

With 34 branches and some 2.3 million items in its collection, the Atlanta-Fulton Public Library System (AFPLS) serves metro Atlanta and surrounding communities with an overall population of about 1 million people. The library system had 3.9 million visitors in 2012, up five percent from the previous year.

Anne Haimes, director of the library for AFPLS, noted the eight new facilities will replace eight smaller and outdated branches, keeping the total number of branches at 34. Some existing staff can be transferred to these new sites, helping ease funding needs.

“This doesn’t grow our system,” Haimes said, “it repositions our system with targeted flexibility that suit our current needs and help us better serve our community.”

Fulton County officials do have some obvious budget obstacles to work around. The county is required by law to adopt a balanced budget each year. Another recent law prevents county commissioners from raising property values over the next two years. “We are going to challenge that,” Pitts said.

Pitts identified the county’s justice system, health and human services, and libraries as “core” funding priorities. He did not, however, speculate on how money might be freed to operate each new branch as it goes online. “We need to begin to be more specific,” he acknowledged, “because the clock is ticking.”

Flint, MI

In Flint, MI, a city of 101,000 residents, the public library expects to lose five and a half FTEs by Sept. 1, after adopting a $3.1 million budget on June 6 that includes an anticipated $275,000 revenue shortfall.

“There is no point in sugar-coating anything at this point,” Kay Schwartz, director of the Flint Public Library, told LJ.

Four librarians and a custodian will be among the staff members lost, she added, noting these reductions amount to “cutting down to muscle and bone. We don’t have a lot of departments that are overstaffed.”

Cutting library hours is also likely, Schwartz said. The Flint Public Library’s location on East Kearsley Street is currently open 53 hours from Tuesday to Saturday; that number could shrink to 45 hours per week.

But demand for library services remains high. “We have tremendous public support,” Schwartz said. “We have 1,000 people coming through our doors every day.”

Schwartz said the library will vigorously pursue “grants from local sources” to offset the projected budget shortfall. Success could mean staving off some staff cuts, at least temporarily. “We’re optimistic,” she told LJ, “but of course it’s a one-year solution.” At press time, no private money had yet been secured.

For the last quarter century, Flint, the birthplace of General Motors, has taken on a nationwide reputation as a center of economic hard times, growing unemployment, rising crime rates and decaying housing brought on by Michigan’s slumping auto industry and recessionary U.S. economies. “People in Flint are hurting,” Schwartz said, contributing to the difficulty of finding private grant money to patch holes in her library budget. “We have tremendous challenges here in Flint from the loss of jobs over three decades,” she added.

Taxpayers in Flint, as in all Michigan communities, already bear a huge burden for the public library. Schwartz said some 90 percent of the budget is raised through millage in a city where property values have declined precipitously in recent years.

A shrinking tax base, of course, means less revenue for the library. Schwartz said $4.7 million was raised through millage in 2009; five years later only $2.5 million for FY14 will comes from that source.

Falls City, OR

In Falls City, OR, an eleventh-hour infusion of $2,000 in private cash will allow the tiny Wagner Community Library in Polk County to keep its doors open, at least until autumn.

Located next to a high school, Wagner is the smallest member of the Chemeketa Cooperative Regional Library Service, which has 18 members. The facility, open just 20 hours a week, was funded entirely by the school district, and had been scheduled to close for good on Aug. 31 after the district announced it was curtailing funding, citing budget cuts.

But an anonymous citizen provided a reprieve, at least temporarily. “It was a donation from a patron,” said Holly Krauss, Wagner’s librarian and the facility’s lone employee. Krauss declined to identify the library’s benefactor, but said the gift was probably enough to keep the library open in September and October. “I can’t predict any further than that,” she told LJ.
Krauss plans to leave her job as of Aug. 31, because her husband is retiring. She will probably be replaced by an employee that now works as an occasional fill-in.

Falls City is home to about 950 residents. “We hate to see them lose their local community resource,” John Goodyear, CCRLS executive director, told LJ.

“Because of the decreased tax revenue and budget cuts, they had to let teachers and other staff go and cut back in every way possible,” Mary Hake, who chairs the library’s advisory board, told the Statesman Journal in Salem, OR, earlier this month. “It’s understandable. The library was just not a top priority.”

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Comments

  1. William Wegman says:

    “Another recent law prevents county commissioners from raising property values over the next two years. “We are going to challenge that,” Pitts said.”

    Really, they’re prohibited from raising property values? Or is it perhaps taxes? I would think they’d want property values to increase.

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