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.”
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