Closing libraries limits future to “go anywhere”

Closing libraries limits future to “go anywhere”
Reporter Lara Patangan with sons Alex and Patrick volunteered to collect petitions at the San Marco Library

Reporter Lara Patangan with sons Alex and Patrick volunteered to collect petitions at the San Marco Library

Grassroots efforts continue for straw ballot initiative

Start Here. Go Anywhere. That’s the slogan for the Jacksonville Public Libraries. But local residents may be forced to go elsewhere if Mayor Alvin Brown’s proposed budget is passed, compelling the closure of six libraries including the neighborhood branches of San Marco and Willowbranch.

To comply with the proposed $2,896,659 budget cut, the Library Board plans to close six branches, listed in order of priority: Maxville, Brentwood, San Marco, Willowbranch, University Park and the Beaches. In an open letter to the public Brenda Simmons-Hutchins, Chair of the Board of Library Trustees wrote “…with deep regret, in order to comply with the administration’s current request, the board was left with no choice but to include the closure of libraries in the budget cuts.”

While that may be the worst of it, it’s far from being all of it. Last year 70 library jobs were eliminated, and the Library Board intends to cut another 33 positions this year in order to be in compliance with the proposed budget. In addition to these job losses, it will end Sunday hours at all branches, reduce Main Library hours by eight hours a week and reduce the materials budget by $251,000. The only controllable cuts the library manages are employees and materials.

City Council must approve the budget that calls for a $61 million reduction before it goes into effect October 1. The fate of the library system, like many other city services, is linked to a retirement reform agreement for public safety. According to Mayor Alvin Brown the savings from it would include $45 million in the next budget year. “That $45 million in savings is enough to prevent most of the difficult cuts to libraries, community centers, and public safety that are being discussed to close the deficit,” wrote Brown in a July 15 letter to Jacksonville citizens.
District 5 Councilwoman Lori Boyer said she is working to find adequate funding to keep the library open, but acknowledges that she won’t have the final say. “I share the concerns of most of my constituents about the importance of keeping open a long-time neighborhood library and recognize the vital function it provides as a safe-haven for students after school,” Boyer said.

While the libraries have faced cuts before, they have never been this drastic. “We’ve been grappling with deductions for nearly a decade,” Simmons-Hutchins said. “Last year’s cuts were so deep. We lost 70 employees, but we were still able to stave off closings. We have contorted, stretched, strained and done everything humanly possible to prevent closing, but we are just at that point.”

San Marco and Willowbranch are listed in order of closures as third and fourth, respectively. Regional managers presented to the Library Board and they looked at a host of different variables while deliberating on which branches to cut. For the San Marco branch, its proximity to other libraries was a factor, and for the Willowbranch library a recurring water issue damaging the building is to blame. “Every library is still under consideration,” Simmons-Hutchins cautions. ”We don’t have the final figure yet. The recommendations are based on what we know at this point.”

According to Simmons-Hutchins there have already been discussions about how they would redistribute the materials from the closed branches. “We would have to move fast because the electronic materials won’t survive once the electricity is off,” Simmons Hutchins explained. “The other libraries would be overloaded in terms of materials. We don’t have enough space to absorb all of it.”

The buildings are city property and they would either have to be sold or another use would have to be found for them. “We own so much real estate right now,” Boyer said. “I can’t imagine there would be any momentum to sell it. Ideally we could find a nonprofit to use it. But we are not there yet, and I am hoping that’s not where we end up.”

One long-term solution to preserve Jacksonville libraries is to designate them as independent tax districts, funded by a property tax of no more than one mill which could only be spent on libraries. According to Bill Brinton, founder and co-counsel for Save Our Public Libraries, Inc., the cap is important. “We took a middle ground in setting a cap of no more than one mill based upon what our own library professionals believed would be sufficient to have a quality library system,” explained Brinton. “Under the proposed district, the annual millage between 0 and 1 would be set by five elected officials and the library structure would allow for long range planning and keep library monies from being raided by other arms of government.”

Save Our Public Libraries, Inc. is spearheading the campaign to collect petitions that would let voters decide through a straw ballot initiative whether they want the opportunity to consider the independent tax district for local libraries. Boyer is supportive of the ballot initiative. “While I don’t want to see every arm of the city government on the ballot, I think in this case it is important to let the citizens decide.”

Twenty-six thousand signatures are needed to get the proposal on the 2014 ballot. As of July 28, there have been 12,205 petitions verified and 7,019 under review at the Supervisor of Election’s office. Thousands of additional petitions were turned in at the end of July and collection efforts are ongoing.

“We looked at models like Orlando and Gainesville. They can plan for their future. They have a dedicated funding stream,” said Simmons-Hutchins. “It would ease this kind of pain.”
Helene Kamps-Stewart, a Murray Hill resident who volunteers for Save Our Public Libraries, Inc., also referred to Gainesville as an ideal model. “During the economic downturn, Alachua County was still able to hire people. By managing their own funds they have found creative solutions and can be a lot more nimble with their resources,” said Kamps-Stewart. “If Jacksonville wants to become a first tier city, we will never reach that goal by dismantling libraries.”

While Kamps-Stewart, also a board member of Friends of the Murray Hill Library, believes there are many important reasons to keep the neighborhood libraries open, including access to a plethora of free reading material for her seven-year-old-son, and the integral part libraries play in the walkability of historic neighborhoods, library closings also concern her on a deeper social level. “If we close the libraries we create more of a digital divide between the haves and have nots.” explained Kamps-Stewart. “I don’t want to be part of a society that lives that way.”

Simmons-Hutchins also believes there is no good reason to close libraries. “We are a hub – every citizen has the right to access library resources. We understand the recession; the budget deficit and that we are a department of the administration. We know we have to do our share.  But it’s so hard to accept that we are cutting off citizens from these vital services.”

By Lara Patangan
Resident Community News

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