By GREGORY N. HEIRES
The Great Recession has brought years of service cuts and downsizing to revenue-starved public library systems throughout the United States.
In New York City, supporters are looking to put an end to the budget battle that occurs every year over library funding, which has plummeted by $67 million, or 22.1 percent, over the past four years.
District Council 37, the largest union of municipal workers in the city, recently launched a campaign to fight for a funding floor for the city’s cash-strapped three public library systems.
The union is calling for legislation that would require the city to dedicate 2.5 percent of its property tax assessments to public libraries.
“Having a permanent funding stream would free the library systems, staff and patrons from annual round of budget cuts and restorations that now take place and provide a more stable delivery of services to communities citywide, which are using public libraries at an increasing rate,” said Executive Director Lillian Roberts of District Council 37. DC 37 has four union locals that represent library workers—ranging from custodians, security guards, maintenance employees and clerks to technical and information assistants, and librarians—in the city’s five boroughs.
“Adequate funding to keep the gates of knowledge open to one and all should be a major priority for our elected officials, now and for the future,” said New York Public Library Guild Local 1930 President Valentin Colon.
But as library advocates press for stable financing, Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s proposed budget would allocate just $193 million to libraries—an astounding $106 million below the current funding. The billionaire mayor’s yearly budget cuts have led his critics to contend that defunding libraries will be one of his legacies after he finishes his third and last term this year.
What are some of the consequences of the inadequate funding over the years?
¦The front-line library staff is down significantly since 2002. Since then, the number of workers in the library systems has declined 20 percent.
¦Libraries have been forced to reduce their services to an average of five days a week, down from six in 2008.
¦The three-library systems face $1.5 billion in construction needs. Queens has deferred $647 million in maintenance projects in its 67 branches.
¦· Tight budgets have forced libraries to curtail spending on books and other material. In recent years, such spending in Queens has dropped from $15 million to $5 million.
¦New York City libraries are typically open 43 hours a week. Libraries in Chicago and Boston are open for 50 hours. Despite its well-known financial troubles, Detroit manages to operate its libraries 45.2 hours a week.
Meanwhile, as they have struggled with Bloomberg’s austerity in recent years, libraries continue to be enormously popular with residents.
Circulation is up by 59 percent in the three library systems over the past decade. Attendance of library programs has increased 40 percent.
More people are going to the libraries, which have provided crucial support to the city’s unemployed during tough economic times. In fiscal year, 2011, more than 40.5 million patrons visited the city’s 206 public library branches.
Branch libraries became safe havens—homeless shelters, job search centers, a place to charge cell phones, facilities with heat and hot water and food distribution centers–in communities devastated by Hurricane Sandy in October.
“Libraries represent hope and opportunity for millions of New Yorkers,” said Jimmy Van Bramer, chair of the New York City Council’s Cultural Affairs and Libraries Committee, who accompanied the union when it announced the “baseline” funding proposal on the steps of City Hall on March 13. “They are an essential city service and must be fully funded. A $106 million cut to libraries is irresponsible and, if enacted, those cuts would prove devastating.”
“Dedicating 2.5 percent of existing property tax levies to funding public libraries would offer a way out of this bad situation and set up public libraries with stable budgets for the future,” said Eileen Muller, president of Brooklyn Library Guild Local 1482.
Supporters of the proposed legislation say that the measure would do more than guarantee a funding floor.
“All three library systems have experienced funding cuts totaling tens of millions of dollars in recent years, but cuts aren’t their only financial obstacle,” concludes a recent report, “Branches of Opportunities,” by the Center for Urban Future, a think tank in New York City devoted to public policy issues. “In many ways, the lack of security afforded by the city’s budget process has been at least as big a problem.”
The steady funding would put an end to an annual “budget dance” in which a lot of energy and resources are devoted to fighting for restorations.
The precarious funding creates anxiety among workers–who each year wonder whether they will lose their jobs–and makes long-term planning for services and capital improvements difficult.
In the face of budget uncertainty, Brooklyn Public Library and New York Public Library, which services Manhattan, the Bronx and Staten Island, have looked to selling off properties.
Queens Library Guild Local 1321 President John Hyslop said, “Legislation providing a stable source of consistent and adequate public library funding would allow library staff in all three systems to provide all the services our customers expect; to plan for new and innovative library services; to assure our customers have a vast array of materials, programs and services; and to feel secure in their profession.”
Cuthbert Dickenson, president of Quasi-Public Employees Local 374, which represents maintenance, custodial and security workers, said, “Every year we have uncertainty related to the budget, but public libraries are part of the educational fabric of New York City and they need stable funding so the young, the old and the in-between can visit, do research and benefit from library services in clean, attractive and well-maintained facilities.”