District Council 37, New York City’s largest public employees’ union, four local library guilds from different boroughs and library supporters are trying to get the city to set aside 2.5 percent of property tax revenues to provide permanent funding for public libraries each year.
Mayor Bloomberg’s fiscal year 2014 preliminary budget slashed funding for public libraries citywide by $106.7 million dollars, with total funding at $193 million. The proposal has infuriated advocates, who held a rally at City Hall March 13 for increased funds so that libraries would be financially stable and not have their programs and materials on the budget chopping block every year.
“Libraries represent hope and opportunity for millions of New Yorkers,” said Councilman Jimmy Van Bramer (D-Sunnyside), chairman of the City Council’s Cultural Affairs and Libraries Committee. “They are an essential city service and must be fully funded. A $106 million cut to libraries is irresponsible and if enacted these cuts would probe devastating. Library workers are unsung heroes, educating and caring for children and seniors alike. They deserve better. New Yorkers deserve better.”
John Hyslop, president of Queens Library Guild Local 1321, said the rally was a way for the union to introduce legislation that would establish baseline library funding each year. For the past 10 years, Mayor Bloomberg has proposed a budget that is considerably less than what they had received the year before.
Going by 2012 property tax figures recorded by the Independent Budget Office, a 2.5 percent earmark for libraries would provide $454 million in funding, well above the roughly $300 million allocated for them in fiscal 2013 - and far more than what the mayor has proposed for fiscal 2014, which begins July 1.
“Queens Library got approximately 83 million dollars last year. For the coming year the mayor has proposed a budget of 52 million dollars,” said Hyslop. “Thanks to City Council we get the money restored, but our staff are upset that we’re put in this position every year fighting for library service. We want this political budget dance game to stop.”
In fiscal year 2011, over 40.5 million visitors came to New York’s 206 public library branches, a dramatic increase in demand over the last decade, according to the campaign. Circulation increased by 59 percent, program attendance by 40 percent, and program sessions 27 percent across the city’s three library systems.
Councilman Vincent Gentile (D-Brooklyn) noted that libraries are no longer used for just borrowing books for recreational or research purposes.
“During this economic struggle when communities are still recovering, libraries have managed to serve communities who need it most with educational programs, workforce development sources, and English-Language Learner classes; all while still managing to maintain their roots as cultural capital in hard-pressed communities,” said Gentile.
Although the demand for library services has gone up, the need for more staff and funding has decreased. Since fiscal year 2009, overall library funding is down $67 million, falling from $336 to $299 million. Queens Public Library funding is down $17.4 million, New York Public Library funding is down $23 million, Brooklyn Public Library funding is down $17 million dollars and Research Library funding is down $9.6 million.
Between 2002 and 2012, the number of front-line staff in the three library systems declined by 20 percent.
John Hyslop said they have lost over 105 staff members, with no custodians to clean up and a need for more computer classes, but not enough financial resources to do either because of previous budget cuts.
Van Bramer and Gentile are not the only council members fed up with the cuts.
“Our libraries are vital community centers that must be fully funded. I am committed to working with my colleagues in the City Council to prevent this nearly $30 million budget cut for our libraries,” said Councilwoman Elizabeth Crowley (D-Middle Village).
According to Hyslop, libraries are important to communities because they provide programs for people of different educational levels and create a sense of community in every neighborhood.
“I’m optimistic about it and it’s a worthy cause,” he said of the 2.5 percent plan. “It’s the right time because New York City needs its libraries for the children and adults. We’re all over the place. We’re the only free institution that provides services to any New Yorker. We’ll just have to work very hard.”