Funding Cuts Could Shelve Many Library Branches

Posted April 13, 2011 by Kate Maher and Doug Turetsky

Just three years after the Mayor and City Council reached a funding agreement to keep the city’s more than 200 branch libraries open at least six days a week, many branches have had to scale back their hours of operation. City funding for New York’s three library systems is on the wane and could reach its lowest level since the 1990s under the Mayor’s preliminary budget plan for next year (chart).

If the city subsidy for the libraries remains at the level proposed by the Mayor for the fiscal year that begins July 1, more than three dozen branch libraries may be closed and others would have to cut back the number of hours they are open each week. After peaking at $301.7 million in 2009, not including funding for the research libraries, the city’s subsidy for the libraries has declined to a projected $270.1 million this year. The Mayor’s budget plan for 2012 would reduce the city subsidy by 22 percent to $209.9 million.

The funding fall-off is already taking a toll on the city’s three library systems, particularly the systems in Brooklyn and Queens (the New York Public Library has branches in Manhattan, the Bronx, and Staten Island). According to the most recent Mayor’s Management Report, Brooklyn’s branch libraries opened for an average of 35.5 hours per week in July through October 2010. That’s down from an average of more than 44 hours a week in fiscal year 2010 (July 2009-June 2010). In fiscal year 2010, all of the branch libraries were open at least six days a week. During the first four months of fiscal year 2011 (July-October 2010), barely a third of the branches were open six days a week.

In Queens, the average number of hours libraries are open each week has declined from nearly 43 hours in 2010 to a little above 40 hours a week during the first four months of 2011. In 2010, about three-quarters of the Queens’ branches were open six days a week; during the first four months of this fiscal year the share had dropped to 53 percent.

Funding constraints could entirely shelve some library branches next year if the city subsidy for the three system declines by $60.2 million to $209.9 million as the Mayor has proposed for 2012. Brooklyn would shutter 16 branches and Queens 14, according to information compiled by the City Council. Even the New York Public Library, which has managed to maintain nearly the same level of service this year despite the decline in city support, would have to close 10 branches.
Mayors frequently propose cuts to the subsidy for the libraries, only to restore the funds in budget negotiations with the City Council. Indeed, the Mayor and Council reversed the proposed cut for this year with a $57.5 million restoration in funds for the three systems. But with teacher layoffs, fire company closings, the elimination of thousands of child care slots, and other spending cuts in the Mayor’s budget plan, finding the money to restore the library subsidy this time around is far from assured.

Despite the reduced hours they are open, the libraries remain much in demand. Attendance at Brooklyn’s public libraries is expected to reach 14 million visits this year, up nearly 2 million from last year. While library visits in Queens are projected to drop by about 177,000 this year, that’s still more than 13.9 million visits.

Continued demand in the face of declining funds is probably a key reason the city’s 59 community boards ranked library services their third highest budget concern this year, rising from seventh last year. Brooklyn’s community boards ranked libraries their top priority.

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