Final Chapter for three libraries

Southwest branches spared in Library Board vote

As the Minneapolis Public Library Board faced one of its darkest hours by voting to close three community libraries and shut the new Downtown Central Library on Mondays, a faint glimmer of hope appeared on the horizon.

In the hours leading up to the board's Oct. 25 vote on a plan attempting to salvage the future of the struggling library system, a flurry of actions by city leaders prompted Library Director Kit Hadley to acknowledge that the board's choices had been broadened slightly.

A last-minute offer of $1.1 million in one-time funds by Mayor R.T. Rybak opened the possibility that the three libraries scheduled for closure - Roosevelt, Southeast and Webber Park - could be closed but not sold while the Library Board waits to see if it'll receive an increase in local government aid in 2007 or some other form of additional permanent funding. The funding offered by the mayor comes from two sources: $850,000 is the city's share of planetarium funding and $250,000 is funding the mayor had originally earmarked in his budget to go toward keeping the 311 helpline open on the weekends.

In an annual budget hearing before the City Council's Ways and Means Committee that took place just hours before the Library Board's vote, City Council members also discussed the possibility of finding additional permanent funding for the Library Board. The committee meeting lasted two and a half hours, more than twice what it was scheduled for, and Hadley said it was the first time in her four years of representing the Library Board that the Council had had a really engaged discussion about the future of the library system.

Hadley and Library Board members said while they'll continue discussions with the City Council, they could not further delay a vote on a plan that results in a three-year balanced budget. Staff members need to begin preparing for the resulting changes that will take effect in January, and Hadley said they're already beginning that process much later than they should. Library Board President Anita Duckor also pointed out that any additional funding from the city is far from guaranteed.

&#8220We can't base this decision on a dream or a hope,” Duckor told her fellow trustees Oct. 25. &#8220We have to make a decision today with the facts that we have.”

The plan

Board members voted 6-2 to approve a resolution that will set the library system on a path to financial stability. As part of that plan, Roosevelt, Southeast and Webber Park libraries will be closed and the Central Library, the system's new flagship facility that opened in May, will only be open five days a week rather than six. The Central Library's schedule will be aligned with the rest of the 12 remaining facilities, all of which will be open Tuesday through Saturday. While the closely aligned hours provide the systemwide consistency and the Saturday hours the board was striving for, it also means that not a single Minneapolis Public Library facility will be open on Sunday or Mondays.

The Library Board will generate revenue to pay for the plan by paying down debt and forgoing capital investments, in exchange for which Rybak agrees to appropriate the equivalent debt service to the board's operating budget.

Trustees Alan Hooker and Laura Waterman Wittstock voted against the resolution that will result in closing libraries. Hooker said he still questions whether the libraries chosen for closure are the best options. While the Library Board considered a variety of factors - including facility size, whether it has had recent capital improvements, its proximity to transit and other libraries, its circulation and many others - in determining which facilities to close, Hooker said the one thing that wasn't considered was the demographics of the communities surrounding the libraries. He said he would have liked to take the time to examine demographics and use that information in determining which libraries to close.

The weight of the decision showed on the faces of board members who did vote for the plan, and several shed tears during and after the meeting. Trustee Hussein Samatar, the mayor's appointee to the board, broke down in tears while describing how important libraries have been to him since he arrived in the United States as an immigrant. Yet he was resolute, saying the board must close libraries in order to have longer hours and better service at the remaining facilities.

&#8220We have to collectively think about saving the system,” Samatar said.

How did it get to this?

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. Libraries are heavily dependent upon LGA under their current funding mechanism. The City Council determines how much funding the Library Board receives from property taxes and LGA. The Library Board's job is to adopt a budget that determines how it uses the money it gets from the city.

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.

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.

A long-term solution

The Library Board's decision to close libraries had several City Council members pledging to work on finding long-term solutions for the financially ailing board.

Colin Hamilton, executive director of the Friends of the Minneapolis Public Library, said the Library Board's vote makes it clear to the city that libraries need additional external funding for the system to work in the long term.

&#8220It sends a strong message to the city that if there's not additional funding soon, this is the path we're on,” Hamilton said.

He added that he's not optimistic that the city will find additional permanent funding for the library system.

Almost the entire City Council sat in on the Ways and Means Committee budget hearing. Hadley told City Council members that the board has used short-term solutions - such as closing two libraries for renovations to be able to fund the operations of the remaining facilities - for years in the hope that one day its funding would increase. That never happened, and the Library Board only dug itself into a situation more difficult to solve. Hadley said the Library Board has to stop finding ways to patch the problem and look for ways to solve it.

&#8220When do you stop digging?” Hadley asked the City Council. &#8220That's part of our challenge here. There's no relief in sight.”

Sitting in a room packed with people wearing neon green &#8220Keep Libraries Open” buttons and children holding signs reading &#8220Love to Read,” Rybak was blunt in his assessment that the city simply can't support a 15-library system anymore. He said having 12 libraries open for a greater number of hours and able to provide a greater number of services is more important than keeping all of the 15 buildings open for very few hours with fewer services.

&#8220What we have right now is broken and we need to fix it,” Rybak said.

Hadley also asked City Council members to consider reevaluating the city service charge and consider changes to the budget process.

Even after taking steps toward closing three libraries, Library Board trustees still have to find a long-term plan that will get the library system to a sustainable future. To that end, they've formed a Library Advisory Committee with the Council and mayor charged with finding long-term funding solutions. The advisory committee will examine long-term solutions, including 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 budget.

Fulton resident Bill Easton sat through the Ways and Means Committee meeting and said while he doesn't want to see any libraries closed, the reality of the situation called for Library Board members to make difficult decisions.

&#8220The Library Board has made some really tough choices, and they should get support for that,” Easton said. &#8220And some of that support should be long term.”

After the Library Board meeting, Councilmember Betsy Hodges (13th Ward), a member of the advisory committee, said the resolution passed by the board strengthened the library system's long-term position by balancing the budget for three years and putting the system on stronger financial footing.

&#8220There was no good option here,” Hodges said. &#8220But I think they did the responsible thing.”

Kari VanDerVeen can be reached at [email protected] and 436-4373.