Feelings Run High as Funding Falters in Hartford

Feelings Run High as Funding Falters in Hartford

It’s been a difficult summer for the officials of Hartford (Conn.) Public Library, where trustees eased an $870,000 budget shortfall for FY2009 by closing the Mark Twain and Blue Hills Avenue branches July 3 and laying off of 40 staff members. Six weeks later, the library board announced that the branches would reopen August 25 to coincide with the first day of school. In between the two actions, neighborhood activists sought—and subsequently withdrew—a court injunction ordering the branches’ reopening, and Hartford Mayor Eddie Perez signaled his displeasure by threatening to take over management of the nine-branch system altogether.

“Hartford residents have spoken loud and clear about how important libraries are to them,” HPL board President Geraldine Sullivan said in a statement August 12, the day after the city council voted unanimously to restore $200,000 to the library’s budget. “We are fortunate to have families who understand the important role libraries play in the enrichment and education of their children.”

Because the closings and layoffs had been projected to save $530,000 in FY2009, trustees had to decide how best to stretch the restored $200,000. The result was the shortening of service hours systemwide “and a focus on the after-school youth services,” according to the statement. Six branches, including the Mark Twain and Blue Hills facilities, are now open weekday afternoons only; the other three retained full-service hours Monday–Friday, and the Main Library became the only city library open on Saturdays. Sullivan concluded by saying, “The board looks forward to working with the city council and Mayor Perez to explore long-term solutions for stable library funding.”

That dialogue promises to be tense, since less than a month earlier Mayor Perez and city council President Calixto Torres had threatened to seize control of managing the library because the board refused to dip into HPL’s $14-million endowment. Torres fretted in the July 17 Hartford Courant, “We have no control, but the community thinks it’s the council, somehow, that is closing these libraries down.” Mayor Perez, in turn, blasted the board for declining to hold an emergency public hearing so residents could “air their views on the closing of two popular branches.” After the board declined, Perez said he was disappointed that trustees would not “take the city up on its suggestions and offers of staff assistance and guidance.”

The trustees’ decision-making was also challenged by constituents of the two shuttered libraries. Attorney Jeffrey Dressler went to court the day the branches closed with a petition charging that the closings would cause “irreparable damage to the children of the neighborhoods and the community at large.” He withdrew the court action July 21 after the HPL attorney refused to speak with community activists while the suit was pending.

Commenting on the August 11 city council/library board compromise mayoral spokesperson Sarah Barr said in the August 13 Courant, “We haven’t had a chance to review what the council passed, but absent of additional tax increases and layoffs, the city is not in a position to provide additional money.”

The fiscal turmoil came only a month after an unrelated community outcry triggered by a May 18 Courant article alleging that main-library patrons were engaging in substance abuse and sexual activity inside the building. A task force organized to review HPL’s patron behavior and internet use policies is slated to reveal its findings in September.

Posted on August 15, 2008. Discuss.