Minneapolis Public Libraries face continuing financial squeeze

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Pretty building.

But you can’t come in.

That’s been the message some Northeast and Minneapolis residents have been getting about their public libraries the last two years, after state funding cuts resulted in drastic cuts to city services.

In 2004, for instance, the Minneapolis Public Library laid off 70 staff members, eliminated unfilled positions, and cut back hours at all its libraries, including the new Pierre Bottineau Library which had just opened in Northeast in May, 2003.

In recent months—after realizing that the city’s funding formulas left them with less money than the parks and rest of the city—library officials have been seeking some financial relief. But some city officials say they’re not likely to get it, if it means increasing taxes or cutting other city services.

Close to home
The Bottineau Library, at Broadway and Marshall Streets NE, cost $2.5 million to build and was initially open five days (Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Saturday) and 40 hours a week. But just eight months later, in January, 2004, Bottineau’s hours were reduced to three days and 24 hours a week; it was closed on Saturday.

“I remember that people were frustrated, especially about it being closed on the weekend,” said Sheridan Neighborhood Organization (SNO) chair Jenny Fortman. “They weren’t angry with the library per se, because they understood the situation. But they’d say, ‘We have this beautiful library and now it’s not open.’ Everybody loved it, especially the children’s, teens and Northeast history sections, and they couldn’t get in.”

Some of Bottineau’s hours were restored in 2005 because other branches were being renovated, according to head librarian Gloria Busch. “Since May, we’ve been open four days a week including Saturday,” she said.

Minneapolis Public Library director Kathleen (Kit) Hadley said she was bothered when she took a closer look at the cutbacks. “It seemed that library services were more affected by the cutbacks than any other city services. The city eliminated 500 [unfilled] positions and laid off 90-plus people. We laid off 70 people and had already eliminated all our vacant positions. I started thinking, ‘Why is this so? The library is a teeny part of city operations.’

“That made us look at LGA [local government aid] and the part of the property tax that goes to the library,” she said. “We went back to 1994, the year they [the Minneapolis City Council] basically set in place the allocation formula of 80 percent to the city, 11 percent to the parks, and 8 percent to the library board. When you look at the part of the property taxes that go to the city, park and library, those two sources of revenue move differently over time. Now, LGA is projected to decline every year, but property tax revenue for operations is scheduled to increase at 4 percent a year.

“Lo and behold,” Hadley said, “that means the library has a bigger share of the revenue that will be decreasing. Part of the problem with the city’s budgeting process is that they never looked at those two sources of operating revenue together. Under the city’s current operating plan for 2003-2008, the library’s operating money will decline 1.5 percent, but the city and parks will increase. Nobody intended for that to happen.”

Hadley said she went to the city council’s Ways and Means committee in October, 2005, to apprise them of the situation. “It was a very good discussion. We were raising the issue for the first time.” Many committee members seemed surprised to hear about the disparity, she added.

Hadley, who last week was in the midst of moving to the new Central Library—scheduled to open to the public in May, 2006—said that explaining the library’s dire financial situation to people while preparing to unveil a brand new downtown library building has been “the most challenging community and public information campaign imaginable.”

Library board member Alan Hooker said that in his view, “the next four years will be the most crucial the library has ever seen. We have dark days in front of us.”

He said he believes Hadley’s presentation to Ways and Means “was the turning point,” however. “Now we have a new council, and people are saying they’re willing to work with the library to correct the funding. We’re reaching out to county commissioners and state legislators. Up until now, it’s been an ‘us versus you’ situation, but I think that’s changing.”

Hooker said he has heard complaints from constituents. “They say, ‘Doggone it, when is my library open?’ Bottineau library is a good example; we rehabbed it but don’t have the operating money to keep it open. If the Minneapolis Public Library’s operating budget had increased at the same rate as the parks and city, our operating budget would have been $5 million higher, which would have been sufficient to have six days of operations at all of our libraries.

“In some ways, we are a victim of our own success,” Hooker added. “The Star Tribune ran a front page story of the downtown central library. It will be a state-wide jewel, a state-wide resource with 2.41 million items. It will be the fourth largest library in the nation, especially when we get the Planetarium. Because of our success with the 2000 referendum and all this publicity, the legislators say, ‘What the heck are you doing, coming to us for money?’ There is a general misconception that the referendum was for everything.”

Hadley said that in the early days of the budget cuts, they asked the city attorney if the referendum money could be used for operations, but were told it couldn’t. If the money wasn’t to be used for building projects, the attorney added, the library board had to give it back.

Ostrow’s view
Minneapolis First Ward City Council Member Paul Ostrow, who is the new chair of the council’s Ways and Means committee, said he heard Hadley’s presentation to the committee last October, and had already been well aware of the financial situation.

“When we were hit with the ‘perfect financial storm’ in 2003, we decided it was critical that the city departments, library board and park board all be on the same diet. An awful lot of people in Northeast were looking at a 15 to 20 percent property tax increase at the time, and there was no way we could raise taxes more than that. We discussed this three and a half years ago.

“It’s true that the library board has a higher amount of their money coming to them through LGA than the city or the park board; when they got the cut, they were hit harder by it and they don’t have as many alternatives for getting revenues. I don’t disagree with what the library is saying,” Ostrow said.

“Where I disagree with what Kit is suggesting, however, is that we change the proportionate allocation of LGA,” Ostrow said. “It’s always been strictly a mathematical proportion. What she seems to be suggesting is that, because of the cuts in LGA, we re-do that formula, and reduce the amount of LGA to city departments, or provide more general fund amounts to the library board.

“The bottom line for that would mean fewer cops and fire fighters, and fewer streets getting fixed,” he added. “I don’t see a majority of support for that.”

Ostrow said that he thought the library board had done a good job, in light of the budget cuts, at responding to what many residents wanted. “I attended meetings that the library board held in the neighborhoods, and I heard people saying that they didn’t want their libraries closed, that they would prefer cuts in hours to that. I think the board did a good job of responding to what people wanted.”

But now, he said, the city’s focus is on long-range planning. The library, like the park board, is independent, and “they’re getting their portion of LGA that they’ve gotten for more than 10 years. They know what the amount is. The concern I have now is that rather than move forward with long-term planning they’re saying to us, ‘We can’t live within that long-term plan.’”

City Finance Officer Patrick Born said that the state legislature had restored some of the LGA money in 2005, which means, “It’s a slight increase; we will receive more in 2006 then in 2005 and that will support our operating budgets a little better. The city’s portion has been used to bring the police force back up to its current level. It is more money, but we’re nowhere near what we lost. We restored about 100 positions, and most of them were police officers.

“It’s going to be some time, if ever, that these reductions are restored,” Born added. “We’re doing everything we can to deliver services more efficiently, and the Mayor and city council have decided that public safety comes first.”

Bottineau Library
Bottineau Library—which includes part of the Grain Belt brewery’s horse stables in its renovated section and a new half, which includes the children’s collection—was built using $2.5 million of the money Minneapolis voters approved in the 2000 referendum.

(The total referendum amount was $140 million; it included building a new downtown library and improvements to all 14 community libraries.)

The Bottineau library project also received $500,000 from the Minnesota State Historic Preservation Office and $110,000 from Sheridan and St. Anthony West neighborhood organizations’ NRP (Neighborhood Revitalization Program) funds.

The MCDA, or Minneapolis Community Development Agency (now known as CPED, Community Planning and Economic Development), contributed money for land acquisition and environmental cleanup.

Busch said when the library administration reorganized the staff, librarians and staff had to bid for their jobs. “I went from full time to half time because I wanted to stay here [at Bottineau Library]. Now I’m a .7 employee. Our library assistant went through the bidding process; she’s still full time, but fills in the rest of her hours at another location, at the Sumner Library [in North Minneapolis]. It’s common now to have a full time job spread around to different libraries.”

Different aides came to Bottineau after the restructuring, she added. “Their positions were in line with the hours we were open. We have people call us all the time, asking when we’re open. I know that the library board and administration wanted to stagger the hours; if we were closed Wednesday night, for instance, then the Northeast branch would be open that night.”

Busch said she has been with Minneapolis Public Library for 24 years, more than 10 of them at Pierre Bottineau library, including at its former location on Second Street NE.

“It’s unfortunate that the library, parks and city are in such a difficult situation now,” she said. “The library board and administration have tried to make the changes fair throughout the city. But it’s all about money.”

The Bottineau Library is open Mondays and Tuesdays, noon-8 p.m., Thursdays and Saturdays, 10 a.m.-6 p.m. The Northeast Community Library, 2200 Central Ave. NE, is open Monday and Wednesdays, noon- 8 p.m.; Tuesday, Thursdays and Saturdays, 10-6 p.m. For information, check the library’s web site, www.mplib.org, or call 612-630-6239.

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