By BRIAN C. JONES
Rhode Island Library Report
PROVIDENCE – (July 29) – The one-week shutdown planned by the Providence Community Library (PCL) in September is a direct result of the city’s decision to cut $205,000 in funds the nine-branch system.
But the closing itself won’t save the library money.
In fact, during the scheduled shutdown of the state’s largest library system – from Sept. 10 through Sept. 15 – workers will still get their regular paychecks.
Instead, the savings will come mostly from a loss of pension benefits for one year for all 65 employees. On average, workers will forgo more than $2,000 each in pension benefits, as well as the long-term loss of investment income the contributions would have earned.
If the workers are still being paid, why not keep the library open?
One reason is that the closing will give most workers week off, the equivalent of an extra week of paid vacation, in exchange for their substantial pension giveback.
But there’s another reason, too.
A library spokesman said that the shutdown is intended to show city government – and the public – the consequences of budget cutbacks, especially if reductions continue into the future, something officials say will have a far more drastic effect on the library.
“You cannot hide the issue from the public,” said Steve Kumins, the library’s development director. “It’s important that next year we get the money back.”
An official of the library workers’ union – which reluctantly agreed to the pension giveback – said that without a shutdown, the retirement concession by the library and its workers might go largely unnoticed by the public, the administration of Mayor Angel Taveras and the city council.
“We had to put the message out that this is not something we can do year after year,” said Karen McAninch, business agent of the United Service and Allied Workers of Rhode Island. “If the cut is something invisible, the city is going to say ‘Good, you can live without it.’ We didn’t want this to be a permanent cut.”
A Closing - And A Message
ORDINARILY, A SHUTOWN brought on by budget cuts would be expected to achieve its savings by the workers’ loss of wages. And that’s what could have happened if the library had gone ahead with an alternative plan, closing for four to five weeks, during which workers wouldn’t have been paid.
But that’s not how this closing is being structured.
The workforce – administrators as well as union members – will give up the PCL’s year-long contribution to its 401k-style retirement plan, for a savings of between $150,000 and $160,000. Most of the remaining shortfall will be made up by the elimination of one job.
Meanwhile, the workers will be paid for five “vacation” days, during which most employees won’t have to work while the library’s nine branches are closed. Some maintenance workers will remain on the job, and take their five days off later.
Indeed, in the three years since the PCL was established as non-profit organization and assigned management of the nine branch libraries by the city, the PCL has emerged as the state’s largest library system, running a variety of educational and cultural programs for children and adults and expanding free Internet computer service to patrons.
For example, in 2011, the Community Library counted 56,034 participants in various programs, about double that of the Cranston Public Library, which had next highest program attendance, 28,830, according to figures compiled by the state Office of Library and Information Services.
Also, the PCL says in its own 2011 annual report that it has added 50 Internet computers since it took over the branch libraries in July, 2009, with a current total of 183 computers, which logged 213,261 users or computer sessions in 2011. By contrast, the next highest user total was 106,489, by the Lincoln Public Library, which has 43 terminals.
Weighing The Options, None Welcome
DESPITE ITS SUCCESS, the library says its finances have remained precarious, dependent mainly on city and state support.
Earlier this year, the Taveras administration proposed a 10 percent cut in municipal funds, or $355,000, as the city struggled to avoid bankruptcy in the fiscal year which began in July.
Library leaders said at the time that the system’s nearly $4.8-million budget was already a barebones spending plan, and they predicted that the drop in city funds could have forced the branches to close up to nine weeks.
In response, the city council and the Taveras administration agreed June 5 to shift funds to the library from elsewhere in the city budget restoring $150,000, thus paring the reduction to $205,000.
At the time, the change was praised by the PCL, which said that “we are hopeful that with this restoration we will be able to continue provide library services with minimal disruption to the people of Providence.”
But on July 19, the Community Library announced the one-week closing, along with the suspension of pension contributions.
“PCL and its employees hope that this great financial sacrifice by all of PCL’s employees, together with the closing of the libraries for one week, will be sufficient to address this budget shortfall,” the library said on its Website.
In fact, after a reporter for the Rhode Island Library Report asked questions on the assumption that the closing amounted to a staff furlough, Kumins telephoned later to explain that the workers would be paid the equivalent of five vacation days and were “not being technically laid off.”
The bulk of the savings are to be achieved by a one-year suspension of the contributions that the library system makes to employee 401k retirement plans. The library pays the equivalent of 4 percent of each worker’s salary into the retirement plans, and for those employees who chose to invest their own funds, the library matches those, up to another 2 percent of the worker’s pay.
Thus, someone earning $30,000, and putting his or her own pay into a retirement fund, could see a lost pension contribution of 6 percent, or $1,800. Actual amounts will differ, since they are pegged to each individual’s wages – a larger amount for someone with a higher salary than for a worker at the bottom of the pay scale. The system-wide payroll is about $2,781,000, so the average loss could be more than $2,000 per worker.
To compensate for the loss of pension benefits, the PCL and the union agreed to uninterrupted pay through the one-week shutdown, with the employees gaining another week of paid vacation. Based on the PCL’s payroll figures reported to the state of about $2,781,000, a week’s salary averages more than $800 per worker. Thus, workers will lose much more in pension contributions than they get to keep during the shutdown week.
According to Kumins, another alternative would have been a system-wide shutdown of a number of weeks, during which employees would not be paid.
But a shutdown of that duration was seen as too disruptive to library system’s patrons – in 2011, the library reported a total of 676,924 visits.
Kumins said the PCL believes the city must restore the original contribution to the library system, and increase funding in future years, if the system is to carry out its mission to provide library services to the city’s neighborhoods.
McAninch, the union leader, agreed, saying employees cannot be asked to making such sacrifices year after year, nor is it realistic to expect fundraising to supply all of the money. If municipal funding isn’t restored, she said, the library system will be forced to take steps more “draconian” than a one-week closing.
The closing is being timed to have a minimal impact, officials said, especially on children who depend on the library not only for its books, computer access and other services, but as a safe alternative to time on city streets.
The Sept. 10 to 15 closing comes with Providence schools in their third week after the summer break. Still, according to the academic calendar posted on the school department’s Website, schools will be closed for students on Sept. 11, which is a state primary election day as well as a professional development day for school staff. (The PCL branches are closed on Sundays, according to posted hours on its Website).
A WIDE REACH
The Providence Community Library's
Locations In Nine Neighborhoods