July 19, 2017

Montana State Library To See Cuts in Budget, Staff, Service

The first staff layoffs since 2011 will take effect in July at the Montana State Library (MSL) in Helena, as one of several cost-cutting measures forced by budget cuts enacted by the legislature for FY18 and 19. And MSL officials are bracing for a second, even steeper round of reductions in funding, staff, and services later this summer.

By the time this bleak budget scenario shakes out, MSL expects to lose about $990,000, more than 16 percent of its roughly $6 million budget for FY17, which runs through June 30, as well as a combined 12 FTEs—over a quarter of its staff. In another austerity measure, one of MSL’s signature programs, the popular Talking Book Library (TBL), which serves sight-impaired or otherwise physically handicapped patrons unable to use standard print materials, will merge operations and space with the Montana Digital Library.

A state-funded agency, MSL manages a variety of programs and collections. It advises and advocates for Montana’s 82 public libraries, distributes a small fraction of their operating revenue via state aid, and offers both development training and certifications. MSL’s collections, shared mainly through its digital operation, focus largely on state government and natural resource materials.

AUSTERITY MEASURES

On June 14, the six-member library commission voted to adopt an austerity plan that became necessary when the state’s biennial budget process played out this spring. The first phase of the cuts, enacted in House Bill 2, came to about $309,000 for each year of MLA’s FY18 and 19.

Decisive action was needed to realize those cuts, state librarian Jennie Stapp told Library Journal. Four jobs were eliminated at the start of FY18, including TBL’s director and one of its readers’ advisors. MSL’s overall physical space will shrink when a lightly used reading room is closed off. But it was the plan to pare staff from the TBL that drew significant public consternation when the commission held public hearings in early June, Stapp said.

Two digital library staffers and two from the TBL made up the first four cuts as of July 7. (Two more eliminated positions have stayed vacant for years.) That’s before a series of state “revenue triggers” will kick in on August 15, costing MSL another $681,000. Legislators put these triggers in place during the budget process as a hedge against revenue shortfalls, which library officials say are now all but guaranteed. The result, they added, will be eight more layoffs in August.

“We’ve never dealt with cuts of this magnitude,” said Stapp, noting that in 2011 budget cuts forced MSL to pare one position.

“We’re a service-oriented industry. We don’t like to say no to people,” Stapp noted. “But we know we’re not going to have the resources we need to do everything we currently do. So everybody’s sort of wondering, what aren’t we going to do and who are we going to have to say no to. That’s painful.”

Stapp spoke of the emotional toll the budget cuts have already exacted, noting MSL has retained a counselor to help staffers cope with the bad news.

“There’s the loss of colleagues that we’re all grieving over,” she told LJ. “There’s survivor guilt for the staff who are left. I think one of the concerns that was voiced today was the fact that just in general there seems to be a real lack of appreciation for public services. Nobody seems to value public services anymore. Our staff…is feeling that very keenly.”

Bruce Newell, chairman of Montana State Library Commission, added in an email, “We think of them not as FTEs but rather as people, our colleagues, our friends.”

PLANNING FOR THE WORST

House Bill 2 is the Legislative spending bill adopted by both chambers of the Montana Legislature. Most agencies felt the pinch in this year’s budget process, but lawmakers passed a two-year spending plan in April that cut more deeply than Gov. Steve Bullock’s (D-MT) initial proposal. Stapp said all state departments were cut by 5 percent with a 6 percent “vacancy reduction” that forced personnel cuts across all agencies.

“Nobody saw those state cuts coming,” Stapp said. “We were really blindsided with them. So we’re not sure where our footing is right now.”

As a part of its budget process, the legislature passed a separate law—Senate Bill 261—creating a budget stabilization reserve fund. It outlined a formal strategy in case state revenues fell short of projections, identifying which agencies would bear the brunt. MSL landed on that list. Said Newell, “These steeper cuts will be triggered by an almost certain lower-than-wished-for balance in our state’s accounts.”

Stapp told LJ that state revenue estimates in advance of the August 15 deadline are already lower that originally feared. “We’re planning for the worst,” she said.

TBL TIGHTENS ITS BELT

On June 14, the same day the state library commission voted on its budget, a new recording studio for the Talking Book Library was dedicated in a special public ceremony. Funding for the $95,000 studio, which helps turn print material into audiobooks, came entirely through donations, MSL officials said.  The event was designed to tout new resources for TBL, but it was a day when library officials also had to acknowledge MSL’s precarious budget position.

TBL manages an extensive recorded book collection featuring a variety of bestsellers and other fiction and nonfiction titles. It also records an average of 50 new books a year. Its specialty, according to the TBL website, is producing audio books by Montana authors, about Montana, or about issues concerning the state. TBL will now merge with the Montana Digital Library, which collects, arranges, and provides an extensive trove of information to state officials, researchers, and other clients.

“The Talking Book Library is losing staff,” Newell said in his email. “This will make a difference, but we hope only a small difference to their users. Service will be slower. And our users have formed relationships and attachments to some of the staff who will be reduced in force. This will be hard for clients and staff alike.” Looking ahead, he added, “Our clients still need talking books. We will all just do our best.”

Helena resident Vicky Greaney, first vice president of the Montana Association for the Blind and president of its Capital City chapter, attended the commission’s public hearing on the budget as well as the dedication of the recording studio. In a phone interview with LJ, Greaney said she trusts MSL staff to keep TBL viable.

“I think that the library will run efficiently and effectively because of the dedication of the readers’ advisors and those people in charge,” Greaney said. “I do know that there are a lot of volunteers that work extremely hard, but I also know there are over 50,000 books in that library that have to go out all the time. I think it might slow down the personal touch or the things getting out as efficiently and effectively as they do.”

Greaney, who is blind, speaks with firsthand knowledge of TBL’s importance.

“When I lost my sight I was 33 years old. … It was like a lifeline for me,” she told LJ. “I know in many people’s case that is true. To me, to have the Talking Book Library and the availability of the books…was just so valuable and important.”

“We have a strong and tight library community, and we will all get safely over this speed bump,” said Newell. “Although this time the speed bump is two stories tall, a big bump, even for us.”

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Comments

  1. Lee Miller says:

    Montana State Library is one of the best examples of a state service that does so much for the people of Montana with so little. I am saddened to hear that the legislature can not find a way to fund this agency. As Stapp says, ” I think one of the concerns that was voiced today was the fact that just in general there seems to be a real lack of appreciation for public services. Nobody seems to value public services anymore. Our staff…is feeling that very keenly.” That is a sad state of affairs if public service is no longer valued.
    I hope the MSL Commission figures out away to address the shortsightedness of the Legislature.

  2. Samantha Hines says:

    Very sad for my Montana colleagues, who work so hard and now must make do with less support. Hope the Commission finds a way to continue MSL’s great work and that the legislators correct this situation in the next biennium.

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