Despite budget increase, some Minneapolis libraries may be closing

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Unable to convince the City Council or the mayor to restructure its funding mechanism, the Minneapolis Library Board next week will announce a series of community meetings designed to discuss ways to provide library services at a time of dwindling funding. Among the options on the table, according to Friends of the Library executive director Colin Hamilton, are a full or partial merger with the Hennepin County Library system, turning over operations of the new downtown Central library to the state, and closing several community libraries.

The 2007 city budget Mayor R.T. Rybak proposed last week includes a 5 percent increase over the Library Board’s 2006 funding, but with two newly renovated community libraries re-opening in 2007 and with the system still reeling from major budget cuts in recent years, the increase will do little to expand the number of hours libraries can stay open each week, Hamilton said. And it does nothing to address the system’s gradually eroding inventory and technology.

“It’s very hard,” he explained. “Library hours are the focus, but it masks the slow disintegration of the system when you’re not investing in inventory and technology.”

The community forums will allow library trustees to test reaction to a number of controversial scenarios and perhaps put some pressure on elected officials in City Hall to restructure a funding mechanism that has kept the libraries disproportionately dependent upon local government aid (LGA).

Library advocates for years have been telling elected officials in City Hall that the system was slowly collapsing due to LGA cuts, but the response has been less than positive. “After a lot of conversation with people at the city, there is a basic agreement that the library has been disproportionately impacted because of its over-dependence on LGA, but because we’ve received a lot of capital funding, there’s not a lot of willingness to change that,” Hamilton said. “That disparity has been grudgingly acknowledged, but there’s no willingness to change.”

Part of the problem is perception, Hamilton admitted. With a sparkling new downtown library and with several community libraries getting spruced up over the past few years, it’s hard to argue that the libraries are hurting. It’s only when you look deeper at the cuts in staffing and the decrease in operating hours that it becomes clear the system is in turmoil.

And even if city officials agreed that there’s a crisis, public safety will always be more of a priority than libraries. “It’s pretty clear that, even if that capital piece were not an issue, they’d be hard pressed to give the libraries more,” Hamilton said.

In addition to calling for community input, the Library Board also is likely to establish a Library Advisory Council that will spend six months researching the board’s financial projections and future funding options. They’ll issue “one or more” recommendations next year, Hamilton said.

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