September 17, 2014

Atlanta-Fulton Library Faces Deep Budget, Hours Cuts

As the Atlanta-Fulton Public Library System (AFPLS) deals with fallout from a $6 million budget cut for 2014—most notably a 36 percent reduction in public service hours and scores of layoffs—it continues to gear up for the opening of new branches.

On January 27, the Fulton County Board of Commissioners, by a 5-2 vote, adopted a $625.4 million general operating budget that included the county’s first property tax hike in 23 years. However, the hike wasn’t sufficient to keep library funding stable: the AFPLS budget for 2014 was set at $25,028,143, which Interim Library Director Anne Haimes told Library Journal was down from about $31 million the previous year (a 19 percent cut).

“It is a significant cut,” Haimes said.

Starting on February 12, only two of the AFPLS’ 33 branches—the Central Avenue Library and the Auburn Avenue Research Library—will remain open seven days a week. Every other branch will now be closed Fridays, and 20 of those 31 will be shut at least two days per week. Those 33 branches in the metro Atlanta and the surrounding community serve a population of about one million with a collection of more than 2.5 million items and recorded more than four million patron visits last year.

In all, the system’s 1,562 public service hours will be trimmed to 996, a 36.2 percent reduction from 2013. “I think it’s fair to say we’re doing our best to preserve weekend and evening hours,” Haimes told Library Journal.

Meanwhile, AFPLS will have three new branches up and running by the end of 2014—part of AFLPS’ $275 million building program, which was funded by a 2008 voter referendum, though ground was not broken on the first new library until 2013.

The ribbon cutting on Atlanta’s Wolf Creek Branch is planned for the end of summer or early fall, Haimes said. The East Roswell and Palmetto branches are also scheduled to open their doors in 2014, followed by two more libraries early in 2015.

When completed, the building project will not add to the overall number of AFPLS branches; the new sites will replace aging and inadequate facilities currently in use.

Adequate funding for the new branches has been a deep concern in the local library community since ground was first broken on these facilities.  Haimes said about $1 million of the 2014 AFPLS budget has been earmarked specifically to staff and operate the facilities going on line this year.

Staffing levels will also be hit hard. AFPLS must downsize by 70 part-time staff members and 50 full-time positions this year, Haimes told LJ, although some existing vacancies will now go unfilled, though some new staff must be hired for the three new branches, Haimes said.

At press time, Fulton County Chairman John Eaves had not yet responded to LJ’s interview requests. In a statement posted on his website, Eaves said, “During this budget process economic sacrifices had to be balanced with the need to provide services to our residents. The funding is in place to solve many of our current needs.” Also on the site, Eaves said the budget allows AFPLS to continue providing services “better than or on par with its counterparts in neighboring jurisdictions.”

Added Haimes, “This is a very difficult budget for the Fulton County Commissioners. They do recognize how important libraries are to the community.”

The cuts are, of course, difficult for library supporters and patrons as well.

“I’m extremely disappointed,” Rachel McCord, president of the Friends of Ocee Library. “I think it was a very large cut to absorb all at once. I think it could have been spaced out better. I think it’s going to hit patrons very hard.”

Added Marsha Holcomb, who heads the Sandy Springs Library Friends organization, “It was not unexpected.… the hours cut were fairly severe. I understand Fulton County had some hard decisions to make. … It’s just a sad situation. There will be some people that we’re leaving behind.”

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