Library Board will likely vote to close at least three libraries

Members of the Minneapolis Public Library Board will likely vote to close at least three community libraries at an Oct. 25 meeting that will determine the future direction of the system and could leave Southwest with one fewer library.

The Library Board is closely examining several versions of a plan that would close and sell Roosevelt, Southeast and Webber Park libraries. The original plan they are considering calls for closing those three libraries alone. But three other versions of that plan would directly affect Southwest libraries. The first would close those three libraries as well as Walker Library in Uptown. The second would close the original three libraries, as well as Linden Hills and Pierre Bottineau libraries. The third would close the original three libraries, as well as Washburn Library.

In all of these scenarios, the community libraries that aren’t closed would all be open five days a week, including Saturdays.

While board members expressed differing opinions during several extensive budget discussions, they all seemed to agree on some version of this plan. After months of budget discussions and public listening sessions, board members said closing libraries is the only option that will balance the financially ailing system’s budget for three years while also preserving full-time staff positions.

An option that would have kept all 15 of the city’s libraries open, albeit most just three days a week, seemed to be the preferred choice of many residents who attended a series of public meetings in September. But that option would leave almost no full-time staff positions, and Library Board members agreed they would not further reduce the number of full-time employees working in the system. An online survey that garnered more than 1,600 respondents showed that 56 percent preferred closing some libraries if it meant service would be improved at the remaining facilities.

Residents at the public meetings also said they would be willing to pay more property taxes to keep their libraries open. But the Board of Estimate and Taxation voted 4-3 in September against a tax increase that would have increased funding for libraries.

Without a cash infusion to its $22 million budget, Library Board members said the only choice they have to get the system on sound financial footing is to close and sell several facilities – no matter how difficult or unpopular that decision might be.

“There’s not one of us who wants to close libraries,” Library Board President Anita Duckor said at the Oct. 10 meeting, adding that the board simply can’t continue avoiding its task of getting the system to a place where it is financially sustainable.

The Library Board is facing a dire financial situation because it 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 they don’t have enough money to operate all of the system’s libraries at their current number of hours each week.

Library Board Trustee Sheldon Mains said he thinks the board needs to close four libraries in order to get back on solid footing financially. The capital funds that would have been spent on these libraries can then be used to operate the remaining libraries. Mains thinks it makes most sense to add Uptown’s Walker Library to Roosevelt, Southeast and Webber Park libraries on the list of facilities to close. Walker Library needs significant capital improvements that aren’t in the Library Board’s budget, Mains said.

Closing libraries isn’t an option for several residents who are advocating that the city allocate more funding for libraries. Cheryl Luger, who lives in the Minnehaha neighborhood and has worked in the past on efforts to preserve Nokomis Library, formed Save Our Urban Libraries (SOUL) in September. She and Marcy-Holmes neighborhood resident Carol Roos are adamant that the City Council should give more money to the library system, and they are encouraging residents to contact their councilmembers and let them know libraries should be a top priority.

“This really has to come from citizens,” Roos said. “I think the city of Minneapolis should look at how valuable libraries are, and I think they should find the money.”

The Library Board is scheduled to present its budget to the City Council’s Ways and Means Committee at 11 a.m. on Oct. 25. That hearing, which is where the Library Board has an opportunity to state its financial situation to the City Council and request additional funding, will take place just hours before library officials vote on a budget that could include the closure of several libraries.

Luger is encouraging residents to attend the City Council committee hearing, and she has compiled a list of items she thinks can be cut from the mayor’s recommended budget.

Councilmember Gary Schiff (9th Ward) said he knows how important libraries are to his constituents because he hears about it on an almost daily basis. While the City Council as a whole has not yet had a discussion about what – if anything – it might do in response to the library system’s financial situation, Schiff said he and Councilmember Sandy Colvin Roy (12th Ward) are looking at ways to cut from Mayor R.T. Rybak’s recommended budget to provide more funding for libraries. There are places to cut, he said, with one of the first being the mayor’s request for $250,000 to staff 311 during the weekends.

In an interview in late September, Rybak said there’s no easy solution. He said he supports whatever decisions the Library Board makes.

“They’re the ones who were elected to make these decisions,” Rybak said. “I’m standing with them and will work hard to make whatever they decide happen.”

 

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