Library Board turns to public for input on tough budget decisions

Leaders say it’s inevitable that some facilities will need to be closed or hours slashed

With the new Central Library serving as its flagship facility and two of its largest community libraries set to reopen early next year sporting millions of dollars in renovations, it seems on the surface that the Minneapolis Public Library system is thriving.

But as the date that will mark the first time all 15 libraries have been up and running after three years of new construction and renovation draws near, Minneapolis Public Library Board officials said they’re facing a financial crisis that will likely force them to close some community libraries or drastically reduce the hours at all of the facilities.

The Library Board has balanced its strained budget the past several years by spreading out resources that would normally have gone to East Lake and North Regional community libraries, which have been closed for renovations. Those facilities are scheduled to reopen in early 2007, but library officials said without a cash infusion, they don’t have enough money to operate all of the system’s libraries at their current number of hours each week — even though those hours have already been reduced in recent years in an effort to stretch the Library Board’s budget as tight as possible.

“There are going to be some really tough decisions coming up,” said Library Board Trustee Sheldon Mains.

But before they make any decisions, Library Board officials will hold a series of public meetings this month to gather public input on the budget-balancing options they have in front of them. At those meetings, a number of scenarios will be laid out for the public that show a variety of options for cutting hours and closing libraries. The Library Board was scheduled to choose which scenarios it will present to the public when it met Sept. 6, after this issue of the Southwest Journal went to press.

But during the course of its 2007-2009 budget planning process, which began earlier this summer, the Library Board developed five preliminary scenarios for consideration. The first option keeps all libraries open in 2007, but eight — including Walker and Linden Hills libraries — would be open just three days a week. Only Central, East Lake, North Regional and Washburn libraries would be open five days a week. The second scenario poses closing and selling all libraries except for Central, East Lake, North Regional, Walker and Washburn libraries. The other three scenarios all look at closing and selling Webber Park, Southeast and Roosevelt libraries with variations on the number of hours the remaining libraries are open. Each scenario also looks at whether the measures taken would balance the three-year budget or structurally balance the budget long-term and what kinds of implications it would have on staffing as well as revenue and expenditures.

Those scenarios aren’t necessarily exact versions of what would happen. Instead, they’re meant to serve as extreme examples of the options Library Board officials have, said Minneapolis Public Library Director Kit Hadley.

“What we’ll be taking out to the public are options that are less about ‘This is a specific budget plan’ and more about ‘This represents a direction we could go,’” Hadley said.

For all 15 libraries to remain open eight hours a day, six days a week with an adequate collections budget, Hadley said the Library Board needs an additional $6 million in 2007.

In addition to closing libraries and cutting hours, the Library Board has also been examining other options as well — which include everything from a full or partial merger with the Hennepin County Library system to the possibility of a referendum for a tax increase that would boost the library’s operating budget. And getting the library’s budget to a place where it can sustain all of its facilities may mean a combination of service cuts and some of these other options.

“Ideally, a lot of people were thinking, ‘Maybe there’s this one thing that will solve our problem.’ But there isn’t,” Mains said. “We’re looking at everything.”

The community meetings will begin at 6 p.m. and will be held:

— Sept. 14 at Walker Library, 2880 Hennepin Ave.

— Sept. 18 at Sumner Library, 611 Van White Memorial Blvd.

— Sept. 19 at Minnehaha United Methodist Church, 3701 E. 50th St.

— Sept. 21 at Central Library, 300 Nicollet Mall

— Sept. 25 at Northeast Library, 2200 Central Ave. NE.

In addition, residents can also provide feedback through online and print surveys and an online discussion forum. Four focus groups will also be held with library card holders selected at random. A summary of MPL’s financial challenges and strategic planning sessions will be mailed to key partners that include

Mayor R.T. Rybak, the City Council and Hennepin County Commissioners, among others.

Library Board members are trying to arm residents with as much information about the current state of the libraries as possible in addition to getting their feedback, said Board Trustee Laura Waterman Wittstock. She’s hoping a wealth of information will help residents understand the difficult decisions the Board is poised to make.

“There is just no answer at hand that we know of today that is going to be pleasant,” Waterman Wittstock said. “So the best thing to do is make sure that we’ve engaged the public and that the public has a chance to make their views known.”

But as Library Board officials scramble to put together a budget that will see the system through the immediate future and determine where it will get the money to open East Lake and North Regional libraries early next year, it also has to look toward the long-term financial stability of the city’s libraries. None of the scenarios listed above gets the Minneapolis Public Library system to a sustainable place for the future, Hadley said.

While library officials don’t have much time to figure out a budget that will allow them to open East Lake and North Regional libraries in a matter of months, Hadley said they do need to take the time to carefully examine measures that will save the city’s ailing library system in future years. To that end, library trustees are working in partnership with the mayor and City Council to form a Library Advisory Committee charged with finding long-term funding solutions. Part of the committee’s work will be to examine past and current budget information, as well as future projections, which library meeting documents noted point to a continued increase in the gap between the library’s revenue and expenses.

The Library Board has battled budget problems for years, but it took an especially hard hit when the state cut local government aid (LGA) in 2003. The libraries are heavily dependent upon LGA under their current funding mechanism, with almost $7 million of the Library Board’s $22 million in revenue for 2006 coming from that form of state aid. Mains said library trustees have been lobbying elected officials at all levels since the new Board took office in January in an attempt to somehow get a boost in funding. But he pointed out that budgets are tight all around, with the city of Minneapolis sporting “major funding problems” of its own.

But former City Councilmember Pat Scott, who has lived in the Kenwood/Isles area for more than 40 years, said the city needs to put libraries at the top of its priority list. She criticized the mayor and City Council for not putting investing more resources into the library system.

“I’m extremely concerned about the fact that the city government is not supporting the library system adequately,” Scott said. “In my opinion, it’s scandalous that we have a brand-new, lovely, wonderful facility in Downtown — the new Central Library — and it has minimal evening hours and it’s not even open on Sunday at all. That’s shameful.”

But City Councilmember and former Library Board member Diane Hofstede (3rd Ward) said if the Library Board has made it a priority to focus on the number of hours community libraries are open, then its members should examine cutting some programs in order to keep the doors of the facilities open longer.

“If your No. 1 goal is to keep all libraries open, then you work toward that goal,” Hofstede said.

She said as the mayor’s proposed 2007 budget goes through the City Council approval process, she will consider looking for ways to increase funding to the library system.

But library officials said the bottom line is that crucial decisions need to be made in the immediate future.

“My guess is that we’re going to try to find dollars wherever we can to try to hold on by our fingernails for one more year while we pursue some of these other options,” Mains said.

Kari VanDerVeen can be reached at kvanderveen@mnpubs.com and 436-4373.