Philly Dodges “Doomsday”; Other Pennsylvania Libraries in Limbo

September 18, 2009

With less than a day to spare before layoff notices were to be sent to library staff, the Pennsylvania Senate approved a law September 17 that gives Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter the revenue to fund the Free Library of Philadelphia. “This is indeed the legislation that was needed for the City of Philadelphia to avoid the ‘Doomsday’ Plan C budget scenario, which would have resulted in the layoff of 3,000 city employees and forced the closing of all libraries,” exulted an FLP blog post moments after the bill passed.

The post went on to thank library lovers for sending thousands of messages to state legislators about “how important public libraries are to the economic, educational, and social life of our city.” H.B. 1828 authorizes a temporary sales-tax hike for Philadelphians and a two-year deferral of payments into the municipal workers’ pension fund. Gov. Ed Rendell indicated that he would sign the bill, which was presented to him September 18.

This was the second time in less than a year that 11 of FLP’s branches had been targeted for closure. Other city services that would have been wiped out by Plan C were recreation centers and municipal funding for the courts. Also slated were the layoffs of 1,000 police officers and the halving of garbage pickup from four to two times per month, the Philadelphia Inquirer reported September 12.

Only a week earlier, library officials had posted a notice online as well as on building doors that lack of funds was forcing the indefinite closure of the entire 54-facility system as of October 2. Library spokesperson Sandy Horrocks spelled out in no uncertain terms the consequences of such a loss: “With almost 7 million visits annually and 22 million hits to its website, the Free Library is the most heavily used of all institutions in the city [and] as the largest provider of internet access in a City where 41% of homes lack web connection, the Library provides the essential link to information, jobs and resources found only online.”

With the Philadelphia budget crisis eased for the time being, the governor and lawmakers may be close to breaking a budget stalemate more than two months after the July 1 start of the fiscal year, according to Pennsylvania Library Association Executive Director Glenn Miller, who described the situation as “fluid.” Meanwhile, Miller was encouraging librarians statewide to keep advocating for fiscal support.

In August, Gov. Rendell vetoed almost half of a $37-billion stopgap budget, including $37 million in state aid to libraries, explaining that he sought “leverage” to sway the legislature into closing a $3.25-billion deficit while prioritizing public education. He took that action after legislators rejected his proposal to slash state library aid by 55%; the General Assembly budget substituted a 14% cut.

Although the reduction amount remains unknown and the next state-aid disbursements are not due before January, some libraries have already begun tightening their belts in anticipation of hard times. Fearing a $340,000 budget cut, Allentown Public Library closed its South branch in late August, according to the August 20 Allentown Morning Call, and the State Library of Pennsylvania halved its service hours as of August 17.


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