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Tacoma: Library board expected to decide on branch closures, budget cuts tonight

Post by Lewis Kamb / The News Tribune on Dec. 15, 2010 at 5:44 am |
December 14, 2010 7:58 pm

The Tacoma Public Library Board of Trustees is expected to adopt a $24.7 million budget tonight for 2011-12 that could result in closing one or more library branches and reducing hours of service at the city’s Main Library downtown.

“I don’t want to close any library — I never want to,” Trustee Anne Seago said at a meeting earlier this month. “But I don’t see that we’ll have a choice.”

Facing a nearly $1.9 million shortfall for the next two years, the options facing the five-member board are grim.

For the past month or so, trustees have considered various cost-cutting models, several of which feature reducing the Main Library’s hours of operations by up to 12 hours per week and shuttering from one to three small and/or medium-sized branch libraries around the city.

In addition, other unidentified administrative cost-cutting would also have to be made under some scenarios. (We wrote about some of the options being weighed here.)

Previous board discussions suggest the Swan Creek Library on the Eastside and the Martin Luther King Jr. Library in Central Tacoma are in the most danger of closing.

The board also has discussed a wait-and-see approach — what Library Board President Tony Hudson has called “kicking the can down the road” — that involves holding off on making significant cuts or branch closures in hopes the economy will turn.

But Library Director Susan Odencrantz and some trustees have warned that option risks having to make even deeper cuts down the road if the financial picture doesn’t quickly improve.

The board has yet to take any official action, but unofficially each trustee has revealed personal leanings about how to address the budget hole.

All trustees appear to agree that Main Library hours will need to be cut. Reducing operations by 12 hours per week could save up to $1 million over the two-year budget cycle (trustees have yet to indicate whether they’ll support an option to add back four of the hours eliminated from weekday shifts to create a new and less-costly Sunday shift).

Even should the board opt to cut the Main Library’s hours, that still leaves a nearly $900,000 shortfall to deal with. Among their considerations, trustees have examined various branch closures based on staffing, location, usage, collections and capital maintenance needs.

It’s clear that none of the trustees want to close any library. But at a special meeting on Dec. 1, all five board members indicated leanings toward closing from one to two branches.

Two trustees — Seago and Hudson — said they were leaning toward closing two small branches: Swan Creek and MLK. More than one branch closure is likely necessary, they said, to create a sustainable budget plan.

“I do think we need to reduce our footprint and prepare ourselves for the new normal,” Hudson said. “It behooves us to make a tough decision.”

Two other trustees — Jack Connelly and Lillian Hunter – said they are leaning toward closing only one small branch (likely Swan Creek), then waiting to see if other closures are necessary based on future economic circumstances.

“We close one, then we evaluate where the city budget is before closing another,” Hunter explained.

If trustees do decide to shut down Swan Creek, they suggested examining ways to relocate the branch’s Literacy Center elsewhere. The center, operated in partnership with the nonprofit Tacoma Community House, offers homework help and classes to improve patrons’ literacy, language and computer skills.

Meanwhile, Trustee Julio Quan, who said the city’s low-income communities need and depend on public libraries the most, suggested if forced to make a choice, he’d close the Wheelock Library in the city’s more affluent North End.

“Where are we going to make the least damage,” Quan said of his thought-process.

Shuttering Wheelock seems highly unlikely. Odencrantz has noted the large regional library is the city’s busiest branch other than the Main Library. It was not among the branches she has recommended to consider for closure, should trustees opt to go that route, and no other trustee has publicly mentioned closing Wheelock.

Whether the trustees’ leanings have since changed or they’ve come up with other alternatives remains to be seen.

Tonight’s regular board meeting is set for 5:30 p.m. at downtown’s Main Library, 1102 Tacoma Avenue South.

The library board has put off making the grim budget decisions so far in hopes the Tacoma City Council would come up with more money for the library than the $24.7 million appropriation recommended in City Manager Eric Anderson‘s 2011-12 general fund budget. But the council approved Anderson’s budget last week, leaving city library funding unchanged.

Earlier this year, the council opted to dip into its own contingency fund and directed Anderson to make cuts in other areas rather than take his recommendation to cut $588,000 from the library’s budget as a way to help the city close a gap in the 2009-10 general fund budget.

Considered a sub-agency to the city, the library works differently from other city departments in that the city manager doesn’t have the authority to revise its budget. Under state law, only the council can set and revise the library’s appropriation, with the council-appointed library trustees charged with deciding how to spend it.

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