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At the City Council, Library System Heads Argue Against Mayor's Budget Cuts

Linda Johnson, Tony Marx, & Dennis Walcott (l-r) (photo: @nypl)

The leaders of New York City’s three public library systems appealed to the New York City Council on Monday for its help in pushing back against tens of millions in possible budget cuts in Mayor Eric Adams’ $102.7 billion preliminary budget plan for the 2024 fiscal year.

The New York, Brooklyn, and Queens Public Libraries, along with the city’s Research Libraries, together face a $20.5 million budget cut in the next fiscal year, which starts July 1, as part of a Program to Eliminate the Gap (PEG) that the mayor instituted to cut city spending. The heads of the library systems also want the mayor to reallocate and baseline another $15.7 million, which was previously awarded by the Council for the current fiscal year through discretionary funds.

In total, the library officials and their supporters say that amounts to a possible $36.2 million budget cut that would severely affect their services, on top of $13.5 million in cuts already made by the mayor in the earlier November modification to the current year’s budget.

Overall, the mayor’s budget proposes a combined roughly $411 million for the three public library systems and the research libraries, $42 million lower than the budget adopted last June for the current fiscal year.

On Monday morning, the heads of the library systems (New York Public Library serves Manhattan, the Bronx, and Staten Island) were among those rallying against the cuts on the steps of City Hall before appearing at a budget hearing held by the Council’s Committee on Cultural Affairs, Libraries, and International Intergroup Relations. They received a sympathetic welcome, as the Council has already declared that it will push back against any reduction in funding for libraries. Committee chair Council Member Chi Ossé, a Brooklyn Democrat, was among the Council members who joined the library presidents and others at the rally before the hearing.

“I want to ensure that the Fiscal 2024 Preliminary Plan adequately funds the city’s library systems as they continue providing services to the neighborhoods throughout the city,” said Council Member Chi Ossé, the committee chair. “It is essential that the budget we adopt this year is transparent, accountable, and reflective of the priorities and interests of the Council and the people we represent.”

The city’s libraries provide a broad range of services and programs including early childhood education, afterschool programming, English-language classes, free internet service, and more. During the pandemic, library branches served as vaccination and testing sites. In one particularly severe heatwave, they opened their doors as cooling centers. They help people sign up for the municipal identification program, host participatory budgeting sessions, provide job training, and teach technology to those reentering society after leaving the justice system, among other services. Most recently, they have been part of providing assistance to the tens of thousands of migrant asylum-seekers arriving in the city.

The library leaders said they faced stark choices should they have to absorb the cuts in the mayor’s proposed budget.

“The scale and magnitude of these cuts would impact our operations across the board – our capacity to open new branches just after we've invested huge amounts of capital in them, to keep our current hours, to maintain our collections, to offer the extensive educational and other programs,” said Tony Marx, president and CEO of New York Public Library, in his opening remarks.

The Adams administration has attempted to refute the narrative that the budget will cut funding for libraries. The mayor and his spokespeople have argued that the PEG exercise did not discriminate between city agencies and was necessary as the city faces severe financial pressures including unresolved municipal labor contracts, increasing health care costs, diminishing federal relief aid, and, chiefly, the costs of the migrant asylum-seeker crisis.

“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 mayoral spokesperson, in a statement to Gotham Gazette last week.

Allon said it was “inaccurate” to say library funding was being cut, however, since that allocation does not yet include state or federal funding, which will be reflected further along during the budget process. He also noted that the Council will have the opportunity to allocate discretionary funds to libraries again before the budget is adopted. “We will continue to evaluate their needs and work with them through the budget process,” he said of the libraries.

[READ: City Libraries Launch Push to Beat Back Mayor Adams' Budget Cuts]

At the hearing, Linda Johnson, president and CEO of Brooklyn Public Library, said the cuts would force BPL to cut 78 vacant positions, at a time when they need to add about 40 more employees to meet the demands of bringing new library branches online. “We're beyond cutting to the bone, we're cutting to the marrow,” she said, insisting that the system would have to brace for emergency closures since they have little wiggle room to operate with limited staff.

Marx said NYPL would have to reduce 85 vacant positions. “A 10% cut to our baseline funding is the equivalent to 10 fewer branches in our system at a moment when we're reopening six,” Marx said.

“All three systems, we’re extremely lean and we’re effective, really, being that lean,” said Dennis Walcott, president and CEO of Queens Public Library. “And any further cuts to the system really goes beyond effectiveness and being lean. It is counterproductive to what we'll be facing.”

Library officials and Council Member Ossé also said that the library cuts are being proposed at a time when transphobic right-wing activists have begun targeting local libraries for hosting drag story hours, and when conservative-led states are banning books that they wrongly label as harmful to children.

“We understand in this moment, in this national climate of a rash of book bans and protests at drag story hours, that we have to stand as an institution,” Marx said. “That is part of our civic engagement, to say we are committed to the mission of everyone having the access to the materials and the programs and the opportunities that they seek.”

“Our very purpose of being here is to be sure that we continue to be the most democratic institution in our society and that we protect everybody's right to read what they choose,” Johnson said.

“We are truly an open democratic institution and we cannot allow our staff, we cannot allow people who come to us as customers, to be impacted, affected by the culture wars that are taking place outside our buildings,” Walcott said.

The library systems have also been affected by the staffing crisis across city government and have been hiring to fill vacancies. But any further cuts will mean that they will lose that hiring momentum, the library officials said.

Ossé also stressed the point that funding for libraries is also essential to public safety. They are the type of “upstream” investments that Mayor Adams has repeatedly talked about.

“We know that the longer that kids are staying in our libraries…and the more interesting programs that we're offering that attract teenagers, the better off they'll be,” Johnson said. “There are a lot of shiny things that are out on the streets and our objective is to keep teenagers in our branches throughout their high school career.”

“In order to achieve the level of public safety that we want, we cannot just be investing in policing,” Marx said. “We need to be investing in how to prevent the kinds of public safety concerns that then feed the debate about policing.”

In April, Mayor Adams will present his executive budget, taking into account the latest fiscal projections, the state budget passed in Albany, and other factors, including the City Council’s response to his preliminary budget, which it will issue after the ongoing weeks of hearings.

On Monday the library officials also stressed the need for libraries to be included in the mayor’s ten-year capital plan and for the city to speed up library capital projects through the Department of Design and Construction, which currently “take twice as long and cost twice as much” as it should, Marx said.

“If we don't have great, inspiring spaces that are not leaking, we can't do any of the other things that people rely on us to do,” he said.

The proposed fiscal year 2024 Preliminary Capital Commitment Plan, which covers fiscal years 2023-2027, allocates $936.6 million for the library systems. The Ten-Year Capital Strategy for fiscal years 2024-2033, which is released every two years, includes $1.3 billion for the systems.

“It would be great if we could be funded enough so that we could do work preventatively instead of just reacting to emergencies,” Johnson said, noting that the BPL has about $340 million in deferred maintenance needs.

The NYPL’s capital needs, Marx said, are about $536 million, while Queens’ needs are about $165 million over ten years.

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

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