June 26, 2017

New York City’s FY18 Budget Promises $110M for Libraries

NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio and Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito shake hands on FY18 budget
Photo credit: Mayoral photography office

In what New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio called the earliest budget agreement since 1992, on June 6 New York City Council voted to adopt the city’s FY18 budget, which will include $110 million for capital projects in libraries across the city, more than doubling capital library funding.

Sealing the deal on Friday, June 2, with the traditional handshake, de Blasio, Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, and Committee on Finance Chair Julissa Ferreras-Copeland concluded extensive negotiations to arrive at the $85.2 billion budget, which allocates $100 million among Brooklyn Public Library (BPL), New York Public Library (NYPL), and Queens Library (QL), plus an additional ten million for infrastructure repairs to BPL’s nearly 77-year-old Central Library. Of the $100 million, NYPL will receive 40 percent and BPL and QL 30 percent each.

Although the adopted budget did not meet the $150 million for maintenance and $34 million for operating costs requested by the three systems, which would have enabled seven-day service in every district, the promised $110 million will go a long way toward helping them keep up with much-needed repairs and upgrades.

“Each system, with a real infusion like this, is going to have at their disposal the funding necessary so that when a roof starts to leak it can be fixed right away,” said city council majority leader Jimmy Van Bramer, who has been an outspoken advocate for libraries for nearly 20 years. “This allows libraries to plan and to make those investments at the appropriate time, not just at the moment of desperation. Without the funding they’ve been in crisis mode.”

JOINT ADVOCACY

While the city has been steadily boosting library funding over the past several years, providing $39 million to ensure six-day service in 2015 and baselining that funding in 2016, this is the first major increase specifically targeted to library capital projects across New York City’s 216 branches. Much of the credit, stakeholders agree, goes to three special reports issued by InvestInLibraries, a combined public awareness campaign of the three systems’ marketing departments, calling attention to New York’s library infrastructure problem.

The seriousness of the citywide structural deficiencies were initially brought to light in a September 2014 report from the Center for an Urban Future (CUF), “Re-envisioning New York’s Branch Libraries,” which visited 50 libraries in all five boroughs and surveyed more than 300 librarians about conditions in their branches. The study noted many of the problems facing the city’s library infrastructure, identifying some $1.1 billion in capital needs.

InvestInLibraries followed up on CUF’s study with a report of its own in March 2015, “Long Overdue: NYC’s $1 Billion Library Fine,” and a second in 2016, “Still Overdue—New Yorkers Need More Funding for Libraries.” A third report, “Time To Renew: Update on the $1 Billion Maintenance Crisis in our Libraries,” issued in May 2017, rounded up three years of advocacy for capital funding.

The most recent report details the $1.1 billion in New York libraries’ capital needs, from failing building infrastructure to broken heating and cooling systems and outdated technology. “Time To Renew” tells the story of ten of the hardest-hit branches, like the West Farms Library in the Bronx, which needs to cover computers in the children’s area with plastic sheeting on rainy days, or Manhattan’s Countee Cullen Library, which suffers electrical outages when librarians have to plug in space heaters on cold days. By showcasing libraries struggling to provide service in the face of flooding and mildew, cramped spaces, broken elevators, or insufficient heat—as well as examples of successful renovations—the report spotlights locations that stakeholders around the city might not be aware of, and make sure that they’re not treated as “business as usual.”

As in previous years, InvestInLibraries organized a letter-writing campaign, enlisting city residents and well-known authors from across the country to urge the mayor to increase library funding. It also invited patrons to post accolades to their libraries on Post-it notes in their home branches, and on a digital Post-it wall.

In addition to helping with the behind-the-scenes work, library staff from all three systems also showed up in force at city budget hearings, noted David Woloch, BPL’s executive vice president for external affairs. “The passion that they brought to all facets of our advocacy campaign was terrific, but you could really see it during those hearings. And for the councilmembers who were leading those hearings, I think it really moved them.”

But InvestInLibraries’ success goes beyond the successful funding campaign. As New York’s libraries have gotten better at articulating their needs and spreading the message that they matter, “our staff and our advocates have built an engagement muscle that wasn’t necessarily there before,” NYPL chief branch library officer Christopher Platt told LJ. “We are far more comfortable asking people to advocate on our behalf”—and have helped patrons find their voices to speak up for their libraries as well.

“They say in politics everything is cumulative, and I believe that about advocacy,” said Van Bramer. “And I believe that about our library advocacy over the last three or four years in particular, where there’s been a real concerted, targeted effort to not only influence elected officials but to elevate libraries in the discussion across the city.”

The momentum that BPL, NYPL, and QL have built in their work together has also paid off in new initiatives with community partners. On June 8, the three library systems, in collaboration with the Metropolitan Transit Authority and Transit Wireless, rolled out Subway Library, providing New York City subway riders with free access to hundreds of ebooks, excerpts, and short stories to read on the train.

“It was that much easier to reach out to the corresponding teams again and start up a conversation,” noted Platt of the Subway Library launch. The budget campaign joint effort “opens new doors for cooperation.”

CITYWIDE CHALLENGES AND SUCCESSES

Although similar structural problems extend to libraries throughout the five boroughs, each system has seen its own particular challenges and successes.

QL, in particular, has seen a strong showing in FY18 participatory budgeting dollars. “We’re very lucky in that Queens has had borough presidents and council members who’ve been very sensitive to our capital needs, so a lot of infrastructure work has taken place over the years,” said Dennis Walcott, CEO of QL.

This year councilman Costa Constantinides secured $3 million in funding for QL’s Astoria branch, the largest allocation it has received in in decades. The money will help make the building ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) accessible, improve the children’s room, and go toward other upgrades. Constantinides also allocated another $657,000 through participatory budgeting toward an accessible entrance in Astoria, solar panels for roof of the Steinway branch, and technology upgrades at both branches. Part of $1.4 million secured by councilman Paul Vallone will help upgrade technology at the Whitestone Library.

“But there’s still more to do,” Walcott told LJ. “This money will allow us to really tackle those types of needs and have the capital dollars to address them.”

BPL’s 60 buildings are on average over 60 years old, and a third are Carnegie libraries that require heavy upkeep. With an average of $15 million to $20 million in capital budget funding from the city every year, the borough has still been left with with some $300 million in unfunded capital needs. Even figuring in the anticipated $40 million revenue from the Brooklyn Heights Library redevelopment project, said Woloch, “We still have been lagging behind and not able to make basic infrastructure repairs to boilers and roofs and air conditioners throughout the system.”

An additional $10 million earmarked for BPL’s Central Library has been allocated from the city’s capital budget. This infusion is joined by participatory budgeting funds from 11 of Brooklyn’s 16 council members, including $300,000 to support the renovation of the public meeting room at Gravesend Library from council member Mark Treyger and $70,000 for exterior signage at the Marcy Library from Robert Cornegy.

With buildings across the city, from the Bronx through Manhattan and down to Staten Island, NYPL has been struggling to keep up with its aging infrastructure for years. Platt cited the city’s recent heat wave, during which a cooling tower in one of the branches broke. “Some of those parts aren’t available anymore, so it’s really disheartening over time when you fix part A and then the part right next to it fails. It’s a domino effect…. Our facilities and capital teams do a great job, but this is going to help us get a little bit more in front of that.”

As branches are renovated and upgraded, Platt told LJ, those teams will be working to develop a new set of standards that preference sustainability, using standard fixtures throughout the system that will be easy to replace and “less one-off flashy stuff that, over time, gets harder to manage.”

Library allies across the city are celebrating, thanking their elected officials, and catching their breath—but not for long, added Woloch. “We want to keep on trying to build on the work that we’ve done so far…. We need to continue to be vigilant.”

Lisa Peet About Lisa Peet

Lisa Peet is Associate Editor, News for Library Journal.

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