Residents balk at cutting hours, closing libraries

In the first of five public meetings the Minneapolis Public Library Board held to gather public feedback on several budget-balancing scenarios that involve cutting hours and closing libraries, residents who gathered at Uptown's Walker Library expressed frustration with the options presented.

Many residents who spoke at the Sept. 14 meeting balked at the idea of further reducing hours or closing libraries, and few offered their opinion on which of the three budget-balancing scenarios presented by the Library Board they would prefer to see. Instead, the roughly 50 residents in attendance spent time discussing how to organize a grass-roots movement to put pressure on Mayor R.T. Rybak and the City Council to get them to channel more funding into the library system. Some in the crowd also said they would be willing to pay more taxes to preserve the city's community libraries.

&#8220The worst option, to my mind, would be closing any library,” East Isles neighborhood resident Rosalie Kane said.

Library Board trustees did not respond to the comments of community members, but those present at the meeting were Laura Waterman Wittstock, Anita Duckor, Gary Thaden, Sheldon Mains and Rod Krueger. Library Director Kit Hadley was also at the meeting, and she gave residents a brief overview of the system's financial situation and the options it is facing.

The Library Board's current financial crisis is the culmination of years of budget problems that were compounded by deep cuts in 2003 to local government aid, on which the city's library system relies heavily for funding. 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 to the Library Board's $22 million budget, 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.

Library trustees presented the public with three scenarios designed to represent extreme examples of the options the Library Board has and directions in which it could go. According to a handout produced by Minneapolis Public Library and distributed at the meeting, in the first scenario, dubbed &#8220Part-Time Libraries,” all 15 libraries are open. But nine of the libraries are open just three days a week and three more are open four days a week. The total number of hours throughout the system is reduced from 2006 levels. The library system would continue to underinvest money in books and materials, technology, facility repair and maintenance, and staffing.

In the second scenario, dubbed &#8220A Few Good Libraries,” 10 of the system's libraries are closed and only Central, East Lake, Northeast, North Regional and Washburn libraries remain open. Central library would be open six days a week and East Lake, Northeast, North Regional and Washburn libraries would be open seven days a week. The total hours systemwide are reduced dramatically from 2006 levels. There would also be adequate investment in books and materials, technology, facility repair and maintenance, and staffing.

In the third and final scenario, dubbed &#8220Consistent Service Throughout,” 12 libraries are open and all, including Central Library, are open five days a week. Roosevelt, Southeast and Webber Park libraries are closed and sold. The total hours systemwide are increased from 2006 levels. The library system would continue to underinvest money in books and materials, technology, facility repair and maintenance, and staffing.

In all three scenarios, all libraries that remain in operation are open on Saturdays.

To keep all 15 libraries open six days a week, eight hours a day with books and materials, technology, facility repair and maintenance, and staffing fully funded, the Library Board would need an additional $6.5 million in 2007. If the additional money came only from Minneapolis property taxes in 2007, an average increase of 3.6 percent above that recommended by the mayor would be necessary.

The tax increase is an unlikely option for 2007 because it's unlikely such a tax could be agreed upon and imposed by then. But it's one of the long-term options the Library Board is looking at, along with other things such as a full or partial merger with the Hennepin County Library System.

But several residents expressed frustration with the options and said the mayor and City Council should step up and ensure the library system in Minneapolis is adequately funded. Former City Councilmember Pat Scott, who has lived in the Kenwood/Isles area for more than 40 years, said the mayor and City Council have the ability to change the priorities. She pointed out that the Library Board is in a difficult political position. The Library Board doesn't have control over the amount of money it receives from city property taxes and local government aid, which together make up 93 percent of its funding, yet it has to figure out how to run all of the city's libraries with what it gets and is the organization that faces public criticism when services are cut.

&#8220I'm so concerned about the way the City Council and the mayor have treated the library system. I think it's a scandal,” Scott said.

She said neighborhood associations should consider writing resolutions within the next month calling for city officials to provide the library system with adequate funding.

&#8220It behooves the citizens to organize ourselves,” Scott said.

Some have already begun doing so. Sam Sharp, who lives on the city's North Side, formed a website, www.mnsam.com, to provide information and spread the word about the library's financial situation. Sharp told trustees that he's used the city's library system for 17 years and wants his son, who was the only child present at the meeting, to enjoy the same opportunity.

&#8220I'm feeling a little like we're getting stiffed and they're getting stiffed,” Sharp said, pointing to his son.

The Library Board is currently conducting an online forum and survey on its website, www.mpls.lib.mn.us, to give residents an additional chance to weigh in on the budget-balancing options. The board will meet next on Oct. 11, the last meeting before members choose a budget-balancing plan at their Oct. 25 meeting.

Kari VanDerVeen can be reached at kvanderveen@mnpubs.com and 436-4371.