Library patrons plead for more support to keep them all open
A town hall meeting to solicit public input on how best to deal with budget problems at Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh drew about 125 people to the Carrick High School auditorium on July 18.
The event, comprised of a financial overview by library officials followed by residents' comments, was hosted by library leadership, and moderated by the League of Women Voters.
Library President and Director Barbara Mistick said if the library continues on its present course, it will be faced with a $6 million deficit in five years. She blamed projected government funding cuts and rising costs.
"Our library system has been chronically underfunded," she said of its $20.64 in funding for each person it serves. Similar libraries in other cities receive up to $100 per person, she said.
Cleveland, for instance, funds its libraries through property taxes.
The library receives 71.8 percent of its funding from the Regional Asset District (RAD sales tax). But only .2 percent from the city.
The state provides 20.5 percent of the funding. But state budget proposals for 2010 include library cuts up to 50 percent. The rest of the funding is from earned income and fundraising.
The library has already taken steps to slash expenditures. They include: cutting hours; reducing staff; hiring and salary freezes; cutting retirement benefits; and reducing spending on books and other materials.
Dr. Mistick said the library system, comprised of 19 neighborhood branches, needs to advocate for more and sustainable funding, and continue reducing operating costs.
In conclusion, she said, "there is a potential for branch closings and branch consolidations." Other possible impacts are fewer programs, less outreach to schools, and less books and computers.
In summary, she said: change is necessary; no final decisions have been made; your input is important; and your advocacy and support is crucial.
The event was among three held on the topic: the others were on July 16 at the main library in Oakland, and on July 21 at the Allegheny campus of Community College of Allegheny County.
Dr. Mistick said she would present proposed changes to the board of trustees in September.
About 25 residents offered their comments.
A Beechview man suggested closing the largest library instead of four smaller branches as the largest would cost more to operate. He also said "minimal fees" for users could be an option.
Two members of the Carrick Library Teen Advisory Board said fewer operating hours might be tried.
"The library gives people hope for the future," said a Knoxville pastor, as it "helps the lower economic areas."
"Please don't close the Knoxville Library," he said.
He credited the library with helping with the education of his daughters, who are in college.
"Take into consideration the dynamics of each neighborhood," said a woman who works at the Beechview branch.
A teen said she has been going to the Carrick branch since she was a baby. Today, she volunteers there every Saturday.
"One of my biggest thrills is seeing how excited little kids get when they get their first library card," said the girl.
A Beechview library volunteer said material can be obtained from throughout the U.S. via interlibrary loan.
"It is the resource for everyone in Beechview," she said.
Another Beechview resident suggested cutting hours rather than closing completely. More fundraising activities should also be considered.
An Overbrook resident called the minimal funding from the city "kind of embarrassing."
A Carrick resident suggested charging fees on some services, like interlibrary loan.
"Libraries are such a good asset to make sure no child is left behind, especially in the summer," she said.
"It would devastate our neighborhood if it closed," said another Carrick woman, calling the library "a vital part of our community."
A Brentwood senior appeared with her grandson. The woman said as a child she spent lots of time in the Mount Oliver library. Her grandson said he goes to the Carrick library with his grandmother.
"I love reading. I want to read 50 books," he said.
A Carrick man said he loves to see his six-year-old autistic son become engrossed in stories at library programs.
He would be willing to pay a minimal fee to keep the programs, he said.
City Councilman Bruce Kraus, a library board member, said that he "apologizes" for the small city funding, and that he will be the voice of advocacy to change the amount.
He called towns like Beechview, and others south of the river, "largely under-served," and with the loss of businesses, recreation centers, and more over the last 25 years, those areas need libraries as anchors.
A Carrick grandmother said to go on a "vacation" she and her grandchildren check out books about faraway places "as we will probably never go there."
"The libraries are a home away from home for me," she said.