R.I. Library Report writer
PROVIDENCE - A key member of the Providence City Council said today (June 1) that he expects the council to restore at least three-fourths of the funds the city administration has proposed to cut from the annual allocation to the Providence Community Library ( PCL), which runs nine neighborhood libraries.
Terrence M. Hassett, Ward 12, said “we are going to shoot for three-fourths” of the approximately $355,000 that the city’s proposed budget would take from the $3.5 million that the current funds the city provides for operation of the branch system.
“I don’t want the casualties to be young children at a very formative point in their lives,” said Hassett, referring to one group of library users. Hassett, the council’s president pro tem and a member of the finance committee, vowed that “we will do our best” to reduce the cut.
Hassett’s comments, in an interview with the Rhode Island Library Report, came after PCL officials said they had learned only recently of the proposed 10 percent cut in the city’s allocation, a reduction so large that it could force temporary closings of the branch libraries.
Further, PCL officials said that any community’s reduction in local support of its libraries can jeopardize future state library aid, because state law requires municipalities to maintain at least current levels of funding to qualify for annual grants-in-aid.
Ellen Schwartz, the treasurer of the PCL’s board, said in an interview Thursday that if a cut of the magnitude of $355,000 were to stick, the system might have to close the libraries in some fashion, including a rotating shutdown, with one of the nine libraries off-line each week.
“These are horrible choices,”Schwartz said, apologizing at weeping while describing the possible measures that the branch system would have to make, all of them affecting the system’s 70 workers, as well as library patrons.
Meanwhile, the Providence Public Library, which separately operates the big library in downtown Providence, said it, too, could lose at least some state aid, even though the amount of its state support is based on its endowment, not the amount of city funding to the branches.
Tonia Mason, marketing and communications director, said today that because state support is based not just on municipal funding, but overall hours of operation and staffing of all libraries citywide, that its funding could be affected in future years if the branch system is forced to scale back.
Hassett said that reduction in library funds in the budget proposed by Mayor Angel Taveras’ administration is “very concerning to the council because of the impact” it could have on the neighborhood libraries, including those in his district.
The Smith Hill Library, in desperate need of repairs, is a vital institution in its neighborhood, and on any given day, Hassett said, “is packed with young children doing book reports and mothers and fathers helping children in the reference section.”
“The use of that library is extraordinary,” Hassett said. “You actually absorb the impact when you walk through it like I have. Go in and watch the kind of energy you see in that kind of place.”
The city council has the final say on the new budget, which takes effect July 1.
With the city facing severe financial difficulties – at one point experts raised the possibility of bankruptcy – Hassett was asked how the council could find the money to maintain most of the current level of library funding.
Noting his 15 years on the council, Hassett replied that small amounts of money could be shifted from a number of other accounts in the budget to the library.
“I know where the bodies are. You have to be creative,” he said, but conceded that “ it’s work.”
Schwartz, the PCL treasurer, said the branch system’s overall budget is $4,795,450, so that the city’s appropriation of $3,500,000 is a major portion, as is the state’s $784,405 grant-in-aid, with the rest of the money coming from cash and book donations.
Last year, when the branch system faced a similar 10 percent cut for the current fiscal year, the city put the money back, but officials warned that there might be reduction in the following budget, Schwartz said. But it was the size of the proposal that shocked officials, she said.
Patricia Raub, one of the founders of the PCL and a vice president of its board of directors, told library supporters in an e-mail May 26 that the city’s budget architects may not have understood the ramifications of such a big reduction.
“City administrators may not be aware that cut of this magnitude could force PCL to close its nine libraries for up to nine weeks between July 1, 2012 and June 30, 2013,” Raub wrote. “Such closings will see our kids out on the streets (and) endanger the summer reading program.”
Raub said that PCL representatives had spoken at a hearing by the council’s finance committee last month, and urged library supporters to lobby their council representatives as the finance committee continued to work on the budget.
Hassett said the message is well understood by the city council, saying the branch system “has the full support of the city council.” The council will work to make sure that the library budget is a priority, he said.
The Providence Community Library in 2009 took over management of the nine branch libraries, which had been run by the Providence Public Library, following a bitter community debate about the Providence Public Library’s proposed closings and reductions of the branch system.
Despite that background, Mason, the Public Library spokesperson, expressed sympathy with the pressures facing the PCL group, saying the financial difficulties were similar to those it faced when it operated the branches.
“It’s a hard road,” Mason said, “when you have a number of neighborhoods and districts where people are dependent on these services.”
(An earlier version of this story was posted this morning. The Library Report will continue to update this story)