City budget could cut lifeline for local libraries

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The Kingsbridge Library is about far more than books.

“We’re busy from the time we open in the morning to the time we close,” said Martha Gonzalez Buitrago, who manages the West 231 Street branch.

If the heat goes out in a nearby school, for example, the library staff makes time for those students to come to the library for an activity. The staff holds computer literacy training, voter registration events and after-school programs.

For low-income students, the library is where they complete their online-only homework assignments. The library also lends wireless hotspots, opening secure internet connections wherever those surfing the web wish to go.

To the Kingsbridge community, the library is a place where recent immigrants can learn English, or senior citizens can bring questions about government support programs. It holds book club meetings, job fairs, author signings and tax preparation workshops.

But if library advocates can’t come to an agreement with Mayor Bill de Blasio before the city’s 2019-20 budget is adopted June 30, it could mean branches citywide face reduced staff, smaller collections, and fewer programs for loyal library patrons.

Rather than increase funding to keep up with rising operations cost, the mayor proposes cutting $10.4 million from all three of the city’s library systems serving the Bronx, Manhattan and Staten Island. The outcry has been intense and sustained — but it is yet unclear if that will be enough to take cuts off the table.

“My fingers are crossed about the budget,” Buitrago said. “We hope it’s not going to have a huge impact. We want to sustain the programs, the staff and the hours we have now, so we’re really nervous about that because that would affect a lot of families who depend on the library’s help.”

It’s all part of the “budget dance,” wherein the mayor threatens to cut funding, putting departments seeking budget increases on the defensive. After harried negotiation, the funding stays flat, and both sides feel they’ve won something. This year’s budget dance has overshadowed the larger need for $35 million in additional funding to maintain current service levels, according to Bronx borough library director Gesille Dixon.

“We do it every year,” she said. “The public library is an essential service to a lot of people in the community. It’s not just for the affluent. It’s for immigrant communities, our low-income communities, our seniors. It’s an essential public service, so why isn’t there a baseline funding with incremental increases since the cost of just planning a program is always going up?”

The libraries have faced several years of reduced funding even though the city continues to refer the public to the libraries for services. It’s where the city holds information sessions and sends people for program applications and training. During a heat wave, the city advises people to wait out the hottest hours of the day in public libraries.

But that, Dixon said, assumes the libraries have working air-conditioning and are open during those hours.

Libraries will also likely be called on to help with the 2020 census, she said. Some patrons will use the library computers to complete the online forms. Those who opt to use the paper forms will probably need librarians’ help.

Library officials want to be part of the conversation about federal funds dedicated to administering the census, Dixon said.

“The library also becomes an extension of having a safe space after school,” Dixon said. “Some people say, ‘Oh just have kids go home and grab a book or something.’ It’s not the same. We build communities just within the libraries themselves. Kids come in, they socialize, they get help with homework, and they get PC and Wi-Fi use.”

Eliminating cuts is a budget priority, said Councilman Andrew Cohen. He and other pro-library council members are negotiating with the mayor’s office to keep the $10.4 million — an amount that’s just a fraction of the city’s $94 billion overall budget.

“I don’t know why the mayor proposed this cut,” Cohen said. “The service, I think, is vitally important. It’s particularly important to Bronxites, and the council is fighting to restore that money. It’s a top budget priority.”

Patrons who know about the proposed cuts have been quite vocal about their support for libraries. Councilmembers just hope de Blasio listens.

“I think it is true that the mayor is taking a hard line, but I also think it’s a little bit of ‘there’s nothing until there’s everything’ to this as well,” Cohen said. “I am optimistic because I know what a high priority this is for the council that we’re going to get this restoration, but I can’t tell you we’ve got it yet.”

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