Citing the library’s importance to education and community gathering, Chicago aldermen on Friday spent three hours voicing their opposition to Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s proposal to cut library staff and hours, though few had suggestions on how to fill the city’s budget gap.
“They serve the young, the old, all ethnicities,” Ald. Ariel Reboyras, 30th, said of the libraries. “I believe the proposed cuts will affect our most vulnerable, our working-class poor.”
In the proposed 2012 budget, the library system would get $11 million less from the city. Emanuel has proposed cutting 284 staff members, most of whom are part-time, in order to save $6.6 million. Under the plan, the library also would eliminate 268 vacant positions. Branch libraries would also reduce their hours by eight a week, likely on Monday and Friday mornings, with details to be worked out with the union.
Library Commissioner Mary Dempsey told aldermen the library would do its best, but acknowledged losing what she said amounts to one-third of her staff would mean a reduction in service for the 11 million annual visitors.
“When you have reduced staff, reduced hours, you have reduced access,” Dempsey said. “So reduced access to books, circulation will drop, visitorship will drop, access to computers will drop … all of that will be impacted.”
Already, staff members are covering multiple positions and management-level workers — including Dempsey — are sorting books. Dempsey said changes in city funding levels also could lead to cuts in state funding because of the formula used to calculate such aid.
Several aldermen said reducing access to libraries would be counterproductive to the city’s goal of improving education.
Ald. John Pope, 10th, said library patrons not only check out books but use computers, search for jobs and warm up in the winter. Others said libraries are essential meeting places for the community.
“Our libraries are much more than libraries. They’re community centers, they’re safe havens,” said Ald. Timothy Cullerton, 38th.
Despite the proposed cuts, the city has plans for more capital projects, including construction of a facility in Edgewater and an expansion of the Humboldt Park branch.
Though few had specific ideas for fully funding libraries, some aldermen suggested using tax increment finance funds while Ald. Richard Mell, 33rd, suggested looking for new donors.
Emanuel spokeswoman Chris Mather defended the library budget proposal Friday, saying the number of visitors at library branches has declined in recent years. There have been 6.4 million visitors to branches through September of this year compared with 6.9 million through September 2010.
“We were originally looking at closing more than eight libraries, but by working closely with the department and identifying additional funding to support library operations, we were able to propose a reduction of eight hours at the branch libraries — by far the best of the two choices for Chicagoans,” Mather said in an email.
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