November 21, 2017

Connecticut and Vermont Libraries Await Decisions on Budget Cuts

CT-VTlogoOther than the proximity of the two New England states, the library systems of Connecticut and Vermont don’t have much in common. They don’t share similar funding arrangements or infrastructure. But both states are facing potential budget reductions that could significantly impact their public libraries, and both have called on residents and legislators alike to speak up for their library services.

Connecticut Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s two-year budget, proposed in February, called for a potential $2 million cut in state library funding to help close a $1.3 billion deficit in FY15/16 and another $1.4 in FY16/17. Two programs in particular would be affected: Connecticard, a program allowing library cardholders to check out materials from any one of 192 participating public libraries; and the Connecticut Library Consortium (CLC), a cooperative that negotiates prices to help libraries save money on books, furniture, databases, and technology. In addition, the cuts would hobble the Grants to Public Libraries Program, which provides funding for programming and literacy services at urban libraries. On April 27 the Appropriations Committee voted in favor of an alternative plan that would restore a number of the social service and library cuts proposed by Malloy. The legislature and the Democratic governor now must reach a final budget agreement.

While Vermont public libraries do not receive direct funds from the state, Gov. Peter Shumlin’s proposed FY16 budget cuts would reduce funding for the Vermont Department of Libraries (DOL) by nearly 20 percent, which would in turn affect a number of programs it administers or supports. These include the Library for the Blind and Physically Handicapped; statewide summer reading programs at public libraries; access to federal and state documents; historical material from the Vermont State Library; interlibrary loans; the Vermont Early Literacy Initiative; three statewide book awards; continuing education for librarians; and the Vermont Online Library, a suite of databases with language, health, and genealogy resources as well as magazine and newspaper articles. The proposed cuts would also effectively eliminate the Vermont State Law Library.

When viewed together, the proposed budget cuts in both states are clear examples of how easily impacted statewide library ecosystems are.

CONNECTICUT PROGRAMS IN JEOPARDY

On Tax Day, April 15, library supporters rallied at the Connecticut capitol in Hartford to protest the proposed cuts. The crowd included members of the Connecticut Library Association, the Friends of Connecticut libraries, the Association of Connecticut Library Boards, and the Connecticut Library Consortium, as well as six legislators: Sen. Ted Kennedy Jr. (D-Branford); Rep. Gail Lavielle (R-Wilton); Rep. Devin R. Carney, (R-Old Saybrook); Rep. Hilda Santiago (D-Meriden); Rep. Phil Miller (D-Essex); Rep. Jonathan Steinberg (D-Westport); and Rep. John Hampton (D-Simsbury). All spoke out against Malloy’s potentially crippling budget.

The originally proposed cuts would zero out funding for the cooperative Connecticard program, administered by the Connecticut State Library. The program, which has been in continuous use since it was approved by the State Legislature in 1973, lets a resident use his or her home library card to borrow materials from any participating library throughout the state. Libraries, in turn, receive a 22-cent transaction fee for every loan made to an outside community. Connecticard was funded by a state grant of $1.2 million last year; according to state librarian Kendall Wiggin, the program stands to lose some $950,000 in funding. While not all libraries would drop the program if transaction fees were cut, or if services were reduced for the Connecticard delivery service, Wiggin said, “Even if some do and some don’t then we’re going to run into a very checkered landscape for the poor library user who’s going to, I think, be very confused—going to one library and they can [borrow materials] and another library and they can’t. It would make it very difficult to have [the] service.”

Such funding cuts would not entirely eliminate CLC, which provides services to 815 public, K–12, academic, and special libraries. But its state funding, said executive director Jennifer Keohane, accounts for approximately 63 percent of its budget. Originally established in 1974 as a network of four cooperative library service units, CLC consolidated more than ten years ago. But “if they slash the funding,” Keohane told LJ, “they’ll be at a budget level that’s the equivalent of one of those regional [units].” She added, “For a small organization that does a lot”—CLC saved libraries $7.1 million last year—“it would mean a complete redesign.”

A SNOWBALL EFFECT

What concerns the library community even more, however, is that Malloy’s original plan also called for the repeal of the statutes authorizing these programs. “This is the first year I’ve actually seen where a repeal of legislation was tied to the elimination of funding,” Wiggin told LJ. “By repealing [those statutes] a lot of the protections for the free public library go away. That law states that you can’t charge for library programs and services…and a lot of other things that aren’t as clear how they would be handled if that went away.” Keohane added, “Even if we won the funding battle, if the statutes went away it would be really difficult for us ever to get funding again.” Since the Appropriations Committee has recommended restoring much of the funding, these repeal efforts may no longer be an issue, but library advocates say they will continue to watch any budget implementation language.

In addition to state funding, the proposed cuts would also result in a loss of $540,000 in federal money due to an inability to meet maintenance of effort standards. According to the Library Services and Technology Act (LSTA) state program guidelines, Connecticut libraries become ineligible for aid if the state cannot maintain its financial contribution, based on an average of the three previous years of funding. According to Wiggin, Connecticut would stand to lose about a quarter of its federal funding. “That would then have further implications,” he told LJ. “While our delivery service is not in jeopardy this year under these cuts … if we start losing federal funds, delivery service is probably one of the first programs that would be affected. So it’s sort of a snowball effect of these budget reductions.”

Losing legal resources

In January, Vermont’s Governor Shumlin proposed a 17 percent general fund cut over last year’s appropriation, and the House Appropriations Committee accepted Shumlin’s recommendation to reduce the budget for the Vermont State Law Library in mid-March. The Senate Appropriations Committee was not expected to make any changes as of press time.

Although a reduction in state aid would not directly affect day-to-day operations of public libraries, the services they use, such as databases and continuing education, would be heavily impacted. State librarian Martha Reid explained, “What they’ll see is a cutback in the extent of digital databases and other products that we’re able to offer—either we’ll need to reduce the number of products or we’ll have to ask for a larger cost share from libraries.” The DOL, however, will bear the brunt of any reduction in funding. “I anticipate a 15 percent cut in our staff,” Reid told LJ. “Where that will take place is not clear yet. But it will become a leaner organization and we will our best to provide the most important services.” She would try to preserve as much federal LSTA money as possible, she added—but because the Law Library is not supported with federal funds, it would be hit hardest.

The Law Library is used by attorneys, clerks, state agencies, organizations, prisoners, and private citizens. If it were to be eliminated, this would leave Vermont as one of the few states in the nation without a state public law library; Arizona and Georgia offer public access to libraries on campuses of Arizona State University and Georgia State University, and New York and Massachusetts have public law libraries integrated into their court systems. “We’ve been working with the legal community around the state to see if we can have some alternatives,” said Reid; one possibility would involve relocating it to Vermont Law School.

While the cuts would not reduce services outright for the Library for the Blind and Physically Handicapped, its interlibrary loan program would likely see longer turnaround times. Reid has been working with Bill Wilson, of Himmel & Wilson Library Consultants, to assess the situation and set priorities for managing what funding the DOL is left with. Whether or not the governor’s proposed budget is amended, said Reid, “I think that we’re probably facing a restructuring at our department and a refocus. Our priorities will become the priorities that are set up in our federal funding program.” As Lydia Willoughby, a former reference librarian at Vermont Technical College and the Community College of Vermont (and a 2013 LJ Mover & Shaker), noted, “It’s ultimately just going to lower the amount of funding and resources that affect the neediest folks who use public libraries—people who are looking for jobs, children, people who are learning English.”

SILVER LININGS

Even in the face of severe funding reductions to libraries in both New England states, administrators have been heartened to see that both libraries and the public are responding by standing up for the services they care about. “Part of what we’re facing, and I think all libraries are facing, is that sometimes policy makers have a different understanding of what libraries are doing these days,” explained Wiggin. It is up to libraries to keep the pressure on their legislators, he said, but also to be clear about what, exactly, they are advocating for. With Connecticard, for instance, “We’ve had this very longstanding program that has become ingrained in library service in the state, so most residents take it for granted. Now we’re having to re-educate people that this program is there because there’s some state funding for it. The library community’s done a lot of advocacy in this area.”

Willoughby concurred on the need to speak up. Especially in a small state like Vermont, she pointed out to LJ, “there’s really a sentiment that we need to have a unified voice on advocacy for libraries.” She suggested that concerned Vermonters turn out for the International Workers’ Day rally at the Montpelier City Hall on May 1, to join members of the Vermont Library Association.

CLC’s Keohane stated, “I don’t think there’s ever been a time when our members have been more aware of our value…and we’ve been seeing those numbers publicized, and spoken by other people. So we know that there’s a true connection between what we do—which used to be one of those nice things but hard to understand in the alphabet soup of library organizations—to…the value that we directly give to our members.”

If the organization were forced to restructure, she said, she would now have a much clearer idea of what the library community wants. “There’s an opportunity…and we’re going to take it anyway,” regardless of the budget that emerges in June. “Because it’s hard to go down this path and not think about alternatives.” She added, “I’ve never been prouder to be a librarian…. This was a catalyst for a very concentrated advocacy effort on our part and it’s been great to see our colleagues, and our fans.”

Lisa Peet About Lisa Peet

Lisa Peet is Associate Editor, News for Library Journal.

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