Gotham Gazette

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City Libraries Launch Push to Beat Back Mayor Adams' Budget Cuts

At a library in Queens (photo: John McCarten/City Council)

The city’s public library systems launched a campaign on Monday to push back against tens of millions of dollars in budget cuts in Mayor Eric Adams’ proposed budget. Adams’ $102.7 billion preliminary budget for the 2024 fiscal year, which begins July 1, is now the focus of a series of City Council hearings.

For the past several months, the mayor’s budget moves have invited criticism as he pushed major cuts to city spending. Ahead of a mid-year November modification to the current fiscal year’s budget, he announced a Program to Eliminate the Gap (PEG), to find cuts and savings worth 3% across most city agencies in the current fiscal year and 4.75% in the next three fiscal years.  

For the city’s three public library systems, with 200 branches across the city, and the city’s Research Libraries, the 3% PEG meant a $13.5 million reduction in operating aid in the current fiscal year, which they have had to absorb. 

In the mayor’s preliminary budget for the 2024 fiscal year, the library systems together are now facing about $20.5 million in reductions, which they are hoping to reverse. They are also calling on the administration to baseline a $15.7 million discretionary one-shot allocation that was made by the City Council last year in its “Schedule C” that comes with the adopted budget, for a total of $36.2 million.

The realized and planned library funding reductions, among broader cuts at many city agencies, created an uproar in the City Council, which symbolically refused to vote on the November mid-year budget modification.

Many Council members, including Speaker Adrienne Adams and finance chair Justin Brannan, as well as advocates, service-providers, and others are now pushing back on the mayor’s preliminary budget and looking to restore much of the funding cuts before a budget deal is reached in June. Among the most-cited examples of proposed cuts that they are upset with are those to early childhood education, CUNY, and libraries.

“This is a serious threat to the ability of the city’s public libraries to serve New Yorkers at a time when we should be investing in these essential public institutions, not cutting them,” said leaders of the Queens, Brooklyn, and New York Public Libraries in a joint statement (New York Public Library serves Manhattan, the Bronx, and Staten Island). “The good news is that New Yorkers love their libraries and are ready to tell the administration and the City Council how important libraries are to every community.” 

Adams’ preliminary budget, released in January, proposed an allocation of $150 million for The New York Public Library, nearly $114 million for The Brooklyn Public Library, about $118 million for The Queens Borough Public Library, and $29.1 million for the Research Libraries for a total of about $411 million. That funding is about $41.7 million less than the $452.7 million allocated for libraries when the current city budget was adopted last June and about $50 million less than the $461 million for libraries in the modified budget for this fiscal year.

But, as mayoral spokesperson Jonah Allon noted, the 2024 funding is likely to increase since it does not yet include state or federal funds that get passed through the city or any discretionary funding that the City Council could choose to allocate. (The library systems also raise philanthropic dollars, among other sources of revenue.)

The library systems say the mayor’s cuts are already hurting their ability to serve New Yorkers, and that future reductions will only worsen services. On Monday, they sent out an email blast to all their subscribers, calling on everyday New Yorkers to sign letters to push back against the funding cuts. Leaders of the library systems will also headline a rally outside City Hall on Monday, March 20, before they testify at a budget hearing held by the City Council.

The Council has already expressed its displeasure with the mayor, repeatedly criticizing his budget proposal and specifically pointing to libraries as one of the areas where they intend to oppose any cuts. “Our libraries are neighborhood resource hubs that provide critical programs and services for New Yorkers of all ages in every community,” said Speaker Adrienne Adams in a statement to Gotham Gazette. “Funding for our library systems that enrich and improve the lives of residents are critical to achieving healthier and safer neighborhoods. The Council will fight to protect these community centers of opportunity and safe haven in the city budget.”

“Our libraries are always the first to be cut whenever we are in an age of austerity,” said Council Member Chi Ossé, chair of the Council’s Committee on Cultural Affairs, Libraries, and International Intergroup Relations, in a phone interview. He stressed the important role that libraries have played during times of crisis, including providing COVID-19 resources and PPEs during the pandemic, hosting COVID-19 testing and vaccination sites, and providing services to the thousands of migrant asylum-seekers arriving in the city.  

Ossé also pointed to the December hearing where library officials pleaded for more funding to avoid cutting programs. “There's no more fat to trim, they were at the bone after those PEGs came into fruition,” he said. “I'm sure that at [next week’s] hearing, we're going to hear that we're touching marrow now.” 

“This administration has made critical investments in the city’s three library systems and recognizes the vital role they play in our communities,” said Jonah Allon, a spokesperson for the mayor, in a statement. “While every agency has been asked to tighten its belt in the current Fiscal Year in response to fiscal and economic conditions — including more than $4 billion in migrant costs by next year, the expiration of labor contracts that went unresolved for years, and skyrocketing health care costs — it is inaccurate to say we cut libraries’ funding in January’s Preliminary Budget. We will continue to evaluate their needs and work with them through the budget process.”

After the preliminary budget was released, Mayor Adams also sought to defend the proposed library cuts in a press conference, insisting that he was merely reducing budgeted vacancies without affecting services. His proposed budget removed 4,300 vacant budgeted positions across all agencies, even as 23,000 vacancies remain in city government . “I'm a big believer in libraries,” he said at the time. “What we're looking at are the vacancies…We are saying 50% that we want them to remove. And that's the same for our libraries.” The mayor’s savings program, however, very clearly defines the library cuts as “Baseline reduction to Operating Subsidy” rather than vacancy reductions.  

The library system provides a wide range of services to New Yorkers from traditional book-lending and a place to read to free internet access and English-language classes to early-childhood education and after-school programs, and more. Library officials had already warned the Council at a previous hearing in December that they will be forced to reduce service and staff if the cuts should go through. “We have become more efficient. But at some point you get to the bone,” Tony Marx, president and CEO of New York Public Library said at the hearing. “This may push us over the edge.”

Linda Johnson, president and CEO of Brooklyn Public Library, called the proposed budget cuts a “gut punch” in an email blast on Monday. “If these cuts proceed, we will be forced to make agonizing choices about shortening hours, cutting programs and collections, and rolling back services,” she wrote.  

Similarly, Dennis Walcott, president and CEO of Queens Public Library, said the cuts would result in “fewer programs, like storytimes, homework help, language classes, and digital literacy workshops, reduced hours at our locations, and fewer books, magazines, and newspapers. We cannot let this happen.”

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

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