Part-time literacy

In 2004, community libraries such as Linden Hills (pictured) will be closed more than open; despite state cuts, some say poor city planning means the problem will get worse

When things go wrong, a lawyer’s first instinct can sometimes be to sue someone. Attorney Kit Hadley — better known these days as director of the Minneapolis Public Library — knows that no lawsuit can fix the library system’s $2.8 million budget shortfall.

"In law school, they told me that the law abhors doing the useless thing," Hadley said.

So she’s concentrating on doing the useful — and painful — things needed to keep the embattled library system functioning. Hadley and the library’s board of trustees recently unveiled a plan slashing hours and reducing services and programs at city libraries next year.

All three Southwest branches will be hit hard by the reductions, with the Linden Hills library, 2900 W. 43rd St., hit hardest: its weekly hours are scheduled to be cut in half, from 48 to 24, if, as expected, the library board approves the budget passed July 11 by its finance committee. Linden Hills is slated to be open three days a week in 2004, down from six days a week this year. The Walker and Washburn branches’ hours will be cut from 48 to 40, and they’ll be open five days a week, including Saturdays, instead of the current six. (Hadley and the board have yet to determine the specific days of the week the various libraries will be open.)

Hosmer Library, 347 E. 36th St., sits just outside of Southwest but is closest to many residents of the Kingfield and Lyndale neighborhoods. "This is their library," Roy Woodstrom, Hosmer community librarian, said of the two Southwest neighborhoods.

His branch, with its popular Technology Center, has also been cut to three days and 24 hours per week throughout 2004.

Woodstrom said about 75 percent of Hosmer’s patrons are minorities. He said he’s upset that the diverse population living near his branch, and the multi-ethnic communities surrounding the Sumner and and Franklin libraries (both temporarily shut down for renovations) aren’t going to have the same access to its library as those living near the Central Library, Downtown, for instance.

"They’re affronted," said 2001 Library Board candidate Wizard Marks of her Central neighborhood neighbors. Marks is a former VISTA volunteer at Hosmer. She and many of her neighbors, she said, think the severely reduced hours at Hosmer is partially due to the large number of blacks living near the library.

"It also has to do with their pocketbooks," she said.

Hadley said Hosmer isn’t among the libraries scheduled to be open 40 hours mainly because the building’s capacity is relatively low: 184 can safely be inside at any one time. Walker’s building capacity is 443 and the Washburn library, 5244 Lyndale Ave. S., has a capacity of 435.

She added that Hosmer’s collection isn’t as large as those at Walker and Washburn.

"There’s going to be some tinkering [with the proposed schedule at Hosmer]," Woodstrom predicted. "People in this area are going to become very vocal when they find out [about the cut in hours]."

Librarian Tonya DePriest of the Linden Hills branch sees storm clouds dissipating rather than gathering near her library. Linden Hills was at one time threatened with closure in one of the budget plans considered by the Library Board. That plan, so-called Scenario B, was dropped by the board a few weeks ago; it had also called for the possible closing of Walker, 2880 Hennepin Ave.

"Everybody was up in arms when they heard we might be shut down," DePriest said. "Now that they hear we’ll be open three days a week, they’re relieved."

She admits that the drastically reduced hours are "going to be tough" on patrons and employees alike.

"With fewer staff, there’s going to be a longer reference-question turnaround" at libraries, said Roger Lindsay, president of the Professional Librarians Union of Minneapolis. "We’ll take your question, work on it, and get back to you. There’s only so much we can do with only one or two people at a community library." He said there’s also likely to be longer waits for new best-sellers, among many other inconveniences for patrons in coming days.

Lindsay warned that the system "runs the danger of going into a downward spiral into irrelevance."

Tough choices

Board members say the public has made it clear to them that all branches should remain open, even though it means layoffs and reduced hours and services.

The board held eight public hearings on its various budget proposals, which ranged from keeping all branches open while eliminating most programs and services to shutting down five branches but retaining most hours, programs and services at the remaining libraries.

"We have gone out to the community, listened to their concerns, taken that information and made it into a workable plan," board member Diane Hofstede said. She and other library trustees agree that their plan is a compromise with which no one is likely to be completely happy.

Michael Hohmann, a Linden Hills resident who made an unsuccessful run for the Library Board in 2001, said the board hasn’t really listened to the public, despite all of their hearings.

"All of these [hearings] aren’t even valid survey tools," he said. "What you get is self-selected groups that show up at these things. It’s kind of ridiculous."

Hohmann, who is vice president of the Minneapolis Planning Commission, said the board should’ve conducted a scientific telephone survey of voters and taxpayers to determine what the public really wants. He said the hearings concealed the real problem with the MPL budget: the Library Board’s own poor planning in the past and present.

"The past is past, but they’re making the same kinds of mistakes today," he said.

He pointed to an MPL preliminary three-year forecast of operating funds issued July 3 as evidence of today’s poor planning. The report projects a 5 percent increase in funding for MPL between 2004 and 2006, with an accompanying 16 percent increase in expenditures.

Hohmann said library patrons could be looking at more reductions in hours and services in just two years if the board doesn’t figure out a way to trim costs further. He said he favors closing two or three branches in order to cut expenses and stave off a repeat of this year’s budget problems.

Board members say their focus is on mending the current hole in the budget and then on finding ways to raise money to keep all branches open and restore hours and programs.

"Nobody wants to run the library at these hours and with these service levels," board member Anita S. Duckor said.

Making the cut

The MPL is funded by Local Government Aid (state funding passed on to cities) and property taxes. In the 2003 budget, the library system gets approximately $9.5 million in LGA monies. That figure has been reduced to $6.7 million for 2004, resulting in the current crisis.

"They [Gov. Tim Pawlenty and his staff] simply don’t see libraries as essential," library board member Rod Krueger said at a July 15 Library Board meeting.

At the same meeting — the last one held by the board to gather input from the public on their budget plans — Hadley said the legislature and governor had made "political choices" when they decided to slash the MPL budget by 20 percent.

Hadley also has choices to make. She has to cut 77-80 full-time positions within the system, including librarians, support staff, maintenance workers, management and others, to balance the MPL budget.

One of the most important criteria to be used when determining which employees will be laid off and which will be retained is seniority.

PLUM’s members are working without a current contract with the MPL, but Lindsay doesn’t expect ongoing negotiations to be problematic, despite the library system’s budget woes. He said the union is faced with difficult choices as it continues negotiations.

"Do we get pay increases, or do we try to make sacrifices to make sure as few people are laid off as necessary?" he said. "There has to be a point when we say we won’t be able to run the libraries properly if we go below X number of librarians."

Lindsay said he isn’t sure what that number might be.

The Library Board isn’t quite sure either, partly because they have yet to decide how many hours each of the system’s 15 libraries will be open. The board formally adopts a 2004 budget at its July 23 meeting (after this issue of the Journal went to press).