Time for a serious talk about the libraries

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Last week, the Library Board announced somewhat ruefully that it would be closing three of its community libraries and cutting the hours at the new Downtown Central Library–all as a result of budget cuts foisted on them by our City Council.

OK, that last part wasn’t true. Library trustees didn’t really come out and says in so many words that it was the City Council’s responsibility to keep libraries open, but they could have. Too bad the council wouldn’t have listened.

It’s interesting how long it takes for Mayor Rybak and his underlings in City Hall to figure out when an issue is beginning to play out on the streets. We’ve already seen how it took the mayor most of his first four years on the job to figure out that public safety actually matters to people who don’t live on Lake Harriet. Now, we’ve seen him and his council colleagues spend at least the last two years ignoring the warning signs of a once-proud library system crumbling.

Three years ago, when the city’s first big Local Government Aid cuts came down the pike, the Library Board was forced to slash its payroll and library hours in order to balance its budget. And despite dire warnings that this was only the beginning, Rybak and the council paid no attention.

What was needed, of course, was a restructuring of the funding mechanism used to finance the library system. Because it relied completely on LGA funding for its operations (not, however, for its capital improvements, like the new downtown library and renovations of several community branches, which came from a separate fund approved by voter referendum), the library system was held hostage to the political games being played at the Legislature. The board had no other source of funding and essentially no way of influencing policy at the Capitol.

But the council was unsympathetic. They had this public safety issue to deal with and their own books to balance.

Three years later, after a fierce lobbying effort by Friends of the Library and the trustees, the council continued to make light of the problem. The Library Board did get a $5 million increase in its 2007 budget, but there was no movement toward rethinking the funding mechanism. Meanwhile, the Library Board began talking specifically to citizens in a series of town hall meetings about the draconian measures they were about to take to balance the budget.

Apparently, the phones began to ring at City Hall, causing Rybak to awake from his slumber and offer an essentially meaningless $1.1 million bump to forestall an embarrassing closure of community libraries only months after the grand downtown library was opened. Still, there was no talk of changing the way the Library Board gets its money.

It’s unfair, of course, to ignore the very real budget pressures under which the city is operating these days. There simply isn’t a lot more fat to cut, a lot more money to shift from one necessary function to another. But the amount of money is only one part of the debate here; the other question is how can the city work together with the Library Board to help city residents build a more stable and thriving library system?

That’s a discussion that until this past week was not taking place. And, despite the hard feelings it appears to be creating, it’s one that’s long overdue.

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