By GREGORY N. HEIRES
The union has launched a campaign to establish a funding floor for the city’s three cash-strapped public library systems.
District Council 37 — working with its four union locals that represent library workers — is pressing for legislation to make the city dedicate 2.5 percent of its property tax assessments to public libraries. During the past four years, the city has slashed its library spending by $67 million, or more than 20 percent.
“A permanent funding stream would free the library systems, staff and patrons from annual round of budget cuts and restorations and provide a more stable delivery of services to communities citywide that are using public libraries at an increasing rate,” said DC 37 Executive Director Lillian Roberts.
“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 R. Bloomberg’s latest proposed budget allocates just $193 million to libraries — an astounding 35 percent cut to $106 million below the current funding.
“Libraries represent hope and opportunity for millions of New Yorkers,” said City Council Libraries Committee Chair Jimmy Van Bramer, who joined the union when it announced the so-called baseline funding proposal March 13 at City Hall. “They are an essential city service and must be fully funded. The irresponsible $106 million cut would prove devastating if enacted.”
DC 37 Associate Director Henry Garrido, who is coordinating the campaign with Roberts and the four library locals, said the legislation would be part of a broad drive to support public libraries.
The campaign will include budget lobbying, pressing for capital projects, community outreach, public relations and participating in a pro-budget rally in May, Garrido said. The union’s present goal is to work with City Council allies on the baseline funding legislation with the hope of having it introduced this year and to take effect in 2014.
Bloomberg's legacy: library defunding
Other council members who stood with DC 37 at the news conference included Deputy Majority Leader Leroy Comrie, Charles Barron, Gale Brewer, Danny Dromm, Vincent Gentile Jr., Sara Gonzalez, Letitia James, Stephen Levin, Michael Nelson, James Vacca and Ruben Wills.
The billionaire mayor’s yearly budget cuts have led his critics to charge that defunding libraries will be one of his worst legacies.
“Branches of Opportunity,” a report by the Center for an Urban Future, a New York City think tank devoted to public policy issues, documents the consequences of the inadequate funding:
• Frontline library staff is down significantly since 2002. Since then, the staff of the library systems has declined 20 percent.
• Libraries have been forced to cut services to an average of five days a week, down from six in 2008. New York City libraries are typically open 43 hours a week, while those in Chicago and Boston are open for 50 hours.
• The three library systems face $1.5 billion in construction needs. Queens has deferred $647 million in maintenance projects needed by its 67 branches.
• Tight budgets have forced libraries to curtail spending on books and other materials.
• Responding to budget uncertainty, the Brooklyn Public Library and New York Public Library, which services Manhattan, Staten Island and the Bronx, are looking to sell properties, which has stirred up community opposition.
Meanwhile, as they struggle with Bloomberg’s cuts, neighborhood libraries continue to be very popular with residents. Circulation is up 60 percent in the three library systems over the past decade, and attendance at library programs is up 40 percent.
More people are using the libraries, which offer crucial job search support to the city’s unemployed in tough economic times. In fiscal year 2011, more than 40 million patrons visited the city’s 206 public library branches.
In communities devastated by Hurricane Sandy, branch libraries served as safe havens — community shelters and food distribution centers with heat, hot water and power to charge cell phones.
The dreaded “budget dance”
“Despite the strong community demand for library services, we have to campaign every year for adequate funding,” said Brooklyn Library Guild Local 1482 President Eileen Muller.
The union’s steady-funding plan would end the annual “budget dance” in which a lot of energy and resources are devoted to fighting for restorations of the mayor’s cuts. The precarious funding creates anxiety among workers — who fear losing their jobs — and makes long-term planning difficult for management.
The years of cuts, the Center for an Urban Future says, have demonstrated that “the city’s policymakers have largely failed to see the public libraries as the critical 21st century resource that they are.”
The mayor’s funding cuts have come when the need for library services is greater than ever, says the report, which points out that some branches cannot handle most of their applicants for English language courses and that while one-third of residents lack broadband access, libraries cannot meet the demand for digital services.
Budget uncertainty = bad public policy
Mirroring the union’s position, the report concludes that the “lack of security afforded by the city’s budget process has been at least as big a problem” as the funding cuts.
The leaders of the four DC 37 locals that represent library workers participated in the budget dance yet again March 8 at a City Council hearing on the mayor’s fiscal plan for fiscal year 2014, which starts July 1. “In the end, it's not a matter of money—it's a matter of priorities,” Muller said at the hearing. “The money is there.”
Speaking at the news confernce, 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.”
“I cannot think of a better investment in our city — and our future — than our libraries,” said Gentile.
“Let us stop this seesaw budget dance,” said Queens Library Guild Local 1321 President John Hyslop.
“It is time for real budget reform that protects all library services and staff. It is time for baseline funding legislation.”
Libraries became havens
Hurricane Sandy knocked out or severely damaged 10 branch libraries in the communities it hit hardest.
But despite the devastation of their workplaces and even their own homes, library workers became local heroes as they helped neighborhoods recover.
The leaders of DC 37 locals that represent library workers and the top managers of the city’s three library systems addressed City Council members at a Feb. 28 hearing, explaining how local libraries became havens for residents coping with homelessness, the loss of lighting, heat and hot water, and extensive damage to their homes.
“Despite personal loss and hardship, our staff responded immediately to the crisis and worked diligently to restore services as rapidly as possible. Their dedication was extraordinary,” said Linda Johnson, president of the Brooklyn Public Library system, which suffered $6 million in damages at six branches.
Sandy caused almost $8 million in damage to buildings and the loss of books, DVDs, and other materials at four libraries in the Rockaways. Damage was insignificant in the NYPL system, which serves Manhattan, Staten Island and the Bronx.
“In all three systems, New York’s public library workers played an indispensable role in providing services and support to the hardest hit communities,” said Eileen Muller, president of Brooklyn Library Guild Local 1482. In coastal areas, such as Coney Island, Red Hook and Sheepshead Bay, the staff distributed canned food, toiletries and diapers, Muller said. They helped jobless people get unemployment benefits and told uprooted residents where they could go for showers.
“The storm was devastating to many New Yorkers, but city workers, including our members, swept in to assist the communities,” said John Hyslop, president of Queens Library Guild Local 1321. The workers helped residents with information about power restoration, federal aid and public transportation, and they provided charging stations for mobile phones and laptops and access to the Internet, Hyslop said. The Queens and Brooklyn systems dispatched mobile libraries to neighborhoods where branches were closed.
Library administrators and union leaders also warned the City Council of another storm looming over the libraries: Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg’s proposed budget, which would cut funding far below the current level.