October 20, 2014

Miami-Dade Libraries Avoid Layoffs For Now, But Face an Uncertain Future

An eight-hour marathon budget meeting on Tuesday, September 10,ended when Miami-Dade County Commissioners broke open the piggy bank, emptying a $7.8 million library reserve fund to avoid cuts in library service that would have slashed operating hours at many branches and eliminated hundreds of staff jobs. (Those plans themselves represented an improvement over earlier scenarios which would have closed as many as 42 of the system’s 49 branches.)

While zeroing out its rainy day fund gave the Miami Dade Public Library System (MDPLS) some breathing room, its budget worries are far from over. With a $20 million budget shortfall looming next year, even higher than this year’s $15 million, library officials and advocates were back at work the next day, faced with an even more daunting challenge: building a new, sustainable model for MDPLS so they don’t find themselves back in the budget hot seat in twelve months.

In spite of the challenges ahead of them, librarians and their supporters are counting last night’s decision as a win. “It was good news for us,” said MDPLS director, and LJ‘s 2003 Librarian of the Year, Raymond Santiago. “We’re happy to be able to maintain our services and not go through with layoffs this year.”

The respite from layoffs may be particularly welcome because the system was hardly overstaffed to start with: only two years ago, more than 100 library workers were laid off from MDPLS, according to Faye C. Roberts, executive director of the Florida Library Association.

But kicking the can down the road to be dealt with in another 12 months isn’t a perfect outcome by any means. Lisa Martinez, a spokesperson for Mayor Carlos Gimenez, said that unlike one of the mayor’s earlier proposals—which would have funded the MDPLS for two years, but seen layoffs and cuts to hours at more than a dozen MDPLS branches— “The current solution restores staffing levels, which is a good thing,” said Martinez. “But it leaves us with a budget cliff at the end of the fiscal year.”

There’s every indication that the MDPLS budget will remain flat, too. There’s little appetite among voters or politicians for a proposed tax hike that would have raised funds for libraries, animal shelters, and fire departments in the county: in fact, when Gimenez initially proposed such an increase, he quickly recanted in the face of taxpayer revolt.  And with six of the 13 county commissioners facing reelection next year, the chances of the commission approving a rate hike in 2014 seem slim, a point Gimenez himself made to the Miami Herald.

“Eventually, this government is going to have to face reality. I’d rather face it now than later,” he said. “It’s pretty tough to raise taxes when you’re going to election.”

Cushioning the Shortfall

A tax hike may be a bitter pill to swallow in an election year, but according to Theo Karantsalis, a former county librarian who has written about the prospect of cuts for Miami newspapers, further reductions to MDPLS services aren’t the answer, either. “You can only cut services so much,” said Karantsalis. “We’re down to the bone and there’s nothing left to cut.”

While increased public support would be a boon to MDPLS, there’s just not a lot of it to go around in Florida. That’s especially true for property tax-dependent libraries in a state that was hit harder than most in the housing collapse. That’s not the only place local governments in the Sunshine State are taking a hit. “The state recently increased counties’ contributions to the state retirement system while also reducing Medicaid payments, creating a financial squeeze for local governments,” said Roberts.

Other library supporters are operating under the assumption that a tax hike is a non-starter, and are trying to find different ways to keep MDPLS funded for the future. John Quick, board president of the Friends of the Miami-Dade Public Library System, said that he and other advocates haven’t given up on the possibility of increasing funding through tax revenues, but that no one is counting on it. “We’d rather be operating under a worst case scenario for strategic purposes,” Quick said. “We’re continuing to work on getting the millage rate raised, but we need to do things to show we’re not just sitting back and waiting for the county commission to give us more money.”

To that end, Quick has been working with patrons, supporters, and county officials to brainstorm a wide variety of fundraising ideas to help MDPLS mitigate their impending budget deficit. Whether that means finding new grants, bringing in corporate sponsors or underwriters, or even opening library branches as event spaces for private functions, no idea is being written off. But with such a short timeline to make such major changes, keeping the story in the minds of citizens and politicians may be the top priority for now. “The most important thing,” Quick said, “is to make sure this stays at the forefront of everybody’s attention and make sure we don’t end up in the same position next year.”

They’ll have help on that front from organizations like Save the Miami Dade Libraries. Organizer Andrew Herridge said that members of his organization are “ecstatic” that MDPLS has another year to get its house in order, he’s careful to note that the situation isn’t settled. “We have won this battle, but stage II is about to begin,” says Herridge. “The efforts of stage II will mainly fall on the staff and administration of the MDPLS as they develop ways the libraries can increase their revenue.” But he and other supporters plan on remaining engaged in that process as advocates for libraries, rather than budget consultants.

Reflecting and Reinventing

While fixing the budget gap is at the top of the library’s to-do list, director Raymond Santiago also sees this as a moment of truth that MDPLS can take advantage of to reinvent itself going forward. A working group of stakeholders from all sides—library employees, patrons, county officials—is taking shape under the direction of the mayor’s office, and marks an opportunity for Santiago and other librarians to reevaluate their priorities and start planning for a more sustainable future. “We’re really beginning that discussion of what are we going to evolve into,” Santiago said. “We need to look inward to become a system everyone wants to support.”

Some solutions could be relatively painless, such as moving library funding under the umbrella of the county’s general fund. That would give administrators more flexibility in writing library budgets and offer more wiggle room in covering future shortfalls. The real aim, though, is to stop running into shortfalls, and that could mean more serious changes. In the long term, becoming a more sustainable library system could mean any number of things for MDPLS—even looking at where branches are located and possibly shuttering those that aren’t serving the community effectively—thus potentially returning to something like the branch closing plans which triggered public outcry in the first place. “We can use this to take a really hard look at the library system from all points of view,” said Santiago. “We’re putting everything on the table.”

For more on this story, see infoDOCKET.com.

Ian Chant About Ian Chant

Ian Chant is the Associate News Editor of LJ.

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Comments

  1. This budgetary “crisis” came about because the library taxing district millage rate has been systematically reduced each year to the point where it can no longer fund the library system. Reserves have either been depleted or raided by other departments ($7 million in 2009). To put it into the proper context, it would be more appropriate to say advocates were asking for a “restoration” of the millage rate, not a tax hike. A complete picture of the campaign and issues, as well as the herculean efforts by library supporters to save our public library system from draconian budget cuts that would have essentially dismantled the system, go to the Save the Miami Dade Public Libraries site on Facebook. https://www.facebook.com/SaveTheMiamiDadePublicLibraries

    Eliminating the library district and folding the funds into a general budget would provide flexibility for greater funding only if there is the political will to actually and adequately fund the library system. If not, it could well weaken it further as libraries end up competing for funds with everything else.

  2. “A tax hike is a non starter,” Well, a majority of commissioners were not only willing to raise the millage at the last of the negotiations in the wee morning hours, but it would have been with a $700,000 price tag to mail out the tax notices a second time. A Mayor’s poor planning and poor management causes expensive consequences! The issue became the mayor’s veto threat if the vote was not a super majority of 9 out of 13. The end result was a compromise to allow the library to use its own reserves.

    For more background on the story, an excellent overview is found here:
    http://eyeonmiami.blogspot.com/2013/08/the-tragedy-of-miami-dade-county-budget.html

    Monday, August 12, 2013
    The Tragedy of the Miami-Dade County Budget. Guest Blog By Santiago Leon
    This was too good not to share with you all. It was written by a friend and civic activist.

    Santiago Leon

    CIVIC ACTION BULLETIN – COMMENTARY
    THE TRAGEDY OF THE MIAMI-DADE COUNTY BUDGET

    This week there have been hearings on the County budget. Most of the audience and the speakers have been there either to oppose actual program cuts (libraries and Fire Rescue) or to insist that the Mayor and the Commissioners honor what the advocates view as a promise to establish a pets’ trust. The County budget has not yet been made final, and there are more hearings to come (see link below). However, the events to date and the current status may be roughly summarized as follows:

    - The Mayor prepared a proposed budget. The budget including some millage increases in the library and Fire Rescue budgets necessary to maintain funding and services at current levels. [See links below for budget details.]

    - It is said that the Mayor did some polling- of citizens, of commissioners, or both- which indicated that tax increases were not wanted.

    - The mayor modified his budget, and submitted it to the Board of County Commissioners (BCC) without any increases in millage. The BCC took a vote and gave preliminary approval to that budget by an 8-4 margin.

    - This reduced budget will become final unless the mayor and the BCC decide to change it.

    For reasons stated below, I believe that these events are evidence of the lack of leadership in our county. The following are a summary of the library issue, which I know better than the others, and a general observation about our lack of political leadership.

    1. The library budget

    The library system is operated by a special district which includes almost all the municipalities in the County. Since the system is separate from County government, funds cannot be moved from the County’s general fund to the library system. Thus, the library system has its own budget, and is financed by the library millage included in our property taxes. (Our County’s Fire Rescue services also have their own district, budget and millage). For the average homeowner, the library tax is about $30 per year.

    It costs about $60 million a year to operate our library system. Our system is not exactly lavish, by the way. A typical major library is closed two days a week, one of which is Sunday, and closes at 6 pm on three of the remaining days. This is not ideal for families with children and kids working on school projects, not to mention the many other groups who depend on the libraries. So if anything, there is an argument that we should be spending more, not less, on our libraries

    Anyway, for unique historical reasons, our library system started 2010 with a carryover of $72 million dollars. This has allowed us, for the last three years, to collect less in taxes than it costs to run the system. 2012, the budget year we are in, is the last of the easy years. We are collecting only about $29 million in property taxes, but along with the $35 million in the bank, it is enough so that we expect to be able to send on $10 million to the 2013 budget.

    2013 is where the rubber meets the road. Remember, we will have only $10 million from the prior year. To meet our budget of $60 million, we are going to have to gather the rest from the taxpayers. So the Mayor’s original proposed budget, sensibly enough, calls for increased millage sufficient to collect taxes of $50 million instead of the prior year’s $29 million.

    A key point is the following: Even though the Mayor’s original budget called for increasing library taxes, it did not call for increasing the library budget. This was a flat budget for the libraries.

    After the Mayor’s polling mentioned above, in the rush to offer the Commissioners a flat budget, somebody got the idea that the library millage should also be flat. The problem with this is that, for the library system, flat millage does not mean a flat budget. In fact, keeping last year’s tax rate means roughly a $20 million dollar cut in the library budget- or about a third of the whole budget. Of course, this is not a flat budget at all- it is a huge cut. For more on what cutting the library budget by a third means for our library system, see this web site.

    2. Leadership

    A couple of years ago, our School Board looked around and noticed that our schools had enormous capital needs. Aside from the need for new buildings, there was a maintenance backlog- leaky roofs, unusable bathrooms, mold infestations, etc. The School Board did not have money in its operating budget to do all this work. The only way to address the problem would be to borrow money in the bond market, which would have to be paid back with property taxes. On the other hand, it was evident that Miami-Dade voters were not enthusiastic about taxing themselves.

    Of course, we know what happened. The School Board bit the bullet and proposed a bond issue, and then they and their superintendent went out and sold it to the voters. This might be said to be an example of true democratic leadership, and politics at its best: identifying a problem, formulating a solution and then persuading the voters to do what needs to be done in order to solve the problem. It is interesting to note that the School Board had been lucky enough to hire as superintendent- an administrative job- an individual who had the skills of a political leader, and who acted as one, even though he was not an elected official. This is evidence for the proposition that not all leaders are elected officials.

    Turning to the County, we see evidence for another proposition: that not all elected officials are leaders. Consider first our Commissioners: we have long since grown accustomed to their hyper-local focus on their districts and their lack of vision regarding the interests of the County as a whole. After all, they have neither access to the broader media nor accountability to a broader electorate. It is understandable that they would be inclined to take the voters as they are (in its extreme form, we would call this pandering), rather than try to lead them to where they have not yet been. So “no new taxes” would be their default position.

    As for the Mayor, given his County-wide responsibilities, we might have expected him to give some priority to making sure that we maintain a decent level of service for our libraries and Fire Rescue services. Indeed, this was the position he took in his original proposed budget. Moreover, given the resources of the mayoralty, it seems like this should have been an easy case to make to the Commissioners and to the public.

    As explained above, the need to increase the millage for the libraries, in particular, was evident more than a year ago. Nor was the need for a millage increase for Fire Rescue services a last-minute surprise. Thus, we might have expected that our Mayor would have been out in the community for the last year or more talking with whoever would listen, enlisting the support of the municipalities, business groups, etc. However, our Mayor did none of this. The sell was never made. The Mayor’s original budget including the necessary millage increases, to mix two grim metaphors, was dead on arrival because it was an orphan.

    To be fair to the Mayor, it is arguable that the leadership vacuum in County government began with us, the voters. In our disdain for politicians, we have twice in a row elected to the office of mayor an individual who thought of himself, and had proved himself, as an administrator, and did not look or sound like a politician. In fact, this was a selling point for the winning candidate in each case.

    The tragedy here is that voters who have sought refuge from empty political posturing by electing reliable managers have been saddled with elected officials who cannot help them to come to terms with real problems, and that individuals who have demonstrated skills as managers have been elected to positions where those skills are not enough. Managers do not, by some fairy-tale alchemy, become leaders, or even communicators, overnight. Thus, even now, the Mayor infuriates his audiences at the budget hearings by telling them that he is doing his best to work within the available “parameters.” Of course, everyone present knows that the “parameters” include the Mayor’s failure in the past to lay the political groundwork for his proposed budget, and his refusal in the present to stick up for his budget with the voters and the Commission. As a result, the Mayor’s protestations that his hands are tied come across as less than honest: although the Mayor may in fact care deeply about libraries, about animals or about the people whose lives will depend on the response times of our Fire Rescue services, that has not been the story told by his actions.

    Is the story really over, as the Mayor would have us believe? Maybe not. The Mayor could, even at this late stage, if he cared enough about the issues at stake, throw a Hail Mary pass. He could apologize for dropping the ball in the past, and do his best to pick up the pieces. We Americans, after all, are a forgiving lot: we respond well to stories of repentance and redemption. Instead, however, the Mayor is so far staying inside his comfort zone, working to paper over the cuts with volunteers, employee concessions, and contributions from outside groups- all comfortable activities for an administrator, rather than a leader, but too little and too late, and not likely to bridge the gaps.

    Looking around the packed rooms at the budget hearings, we can see, I believe, absent some miraculous turnaround, the ground troops for the Mayor’s opponent in the next election, should the Mayor choose to run again. The more those present listen to the Mayor, it appears, the more they recognize his limitations and the more committed they are to replacing him. All that is missing is for firefighters and their supporters, pet enthusiasts, and library advocates, along with others in the community, to come together as a group and deliver their support to an actual leader. Perhaps such a group, if it came together, might look for a candidate a few blocks north at the School Board headquarters.

    Meanwhile, what to do?

    1. Learn about the issues. A number of resources are collected here:

    http://www.friendsofmdpl.org/

    2. Contact your Commissioner (I am told that Javier Suarez and Pepe Diaz are the swing votes):

    http://www.miamidade.gov/commission/

    3. Attend a budget hearing, listen to your fellow citizens, make some new friends, and let the Mayor know what you think:

    http://www.miamidade.gov/mayor/town-hall.asp
    —–

    You can read the budget here:

    http://www.miamidade.gov/budget/

    Library is here:

    http://www.miamidade.gov/budget/library/FY2013-14/proposed/volume2/library.pdf

    Fire Rescue is here:

    http://www.miamidade.gov/budget/library/FY2013-14/proposed/volume2/fire-rescue.pdf

    Animal Services are here:

    http://www.miamidade.gov/budget/library/FY2013-14/proposed/volume3/animals.pdf
    =====