Indianapolis Opening Entangled in Financial Controversy

Indianapolis Opening Entangled in Financial Controversy

A splendid new central library opened in downtown Indianapolis December 9, amid ongoing controversy over who is responsible for $50 million in construction cost overruns and how a frozen operating budget will support a facility that has essentially doubled in size.

Indianapolis–Marion County (Ind.) Public Library CEO Laura Bramble told American Libraries that IMCPL is “currently in litigation and mediation,” so she was reluctant to go into detail but said, “We’re still hoping it might not have to go to trial.”

Bramble also said that the library’s 2008 materials budget has dropped from $6.5 million to $6 million. She explained that the FY08 budget is “unclear” and will be for some time, “so we are watching our cash flow carefully.” Asked about charges that the library had replaced librarians with non-degreed professionals, Bramble acknowledged that the library was using what it calls “public service associates” with bachelor’s degrees to replace some branch librarians. She also said that the Central Library is now “adequately staffed” at a level comparable to 2002, before a hiring freeze caused major shortages and former director Linda Mielke stepped down after declining a pay raise because the library was cutting spending and eliminating planned salary increases for other staff.

On the plus side, the new facility has been hailed by architectural critics as stylish and stunning, “beautiful on the outside, dramatic inside in places where theatrics don’t sabotage its practical mission,” said Lawrence W. Cheek in the December 9 Indianapolis Star. Heralding the opening as “A Community Celebration,” trumpeters led a procession of officials onstage for the dedication, attended by upwards of 5,000 people. Locals then got their first look at such features as the high-tech Learning Curve area for children and families, the Nina Mason Pulliam Indianapolis Special Collections Room, the restored Simon Reading Room in the renovated 1917 Cret Building, the expansive Computer Training Lab, and a collection of over 700,000 books and audiovisual materials.

To get the library back on course fiscally, officials announced December 13 that former Purdue University president Martin C. Jischke and Patty Jischke will cochair a new strategic planning committee charged with identifying service and programming priorities as well as funding capabilities for IMCPL over the next five years. “Libraries are on the cutting edge of personal education and an essential element to a thriving, successful community,” the couple stated in a press release. “The better the public library, the better the community.”

The last strategic plan for IMCPL was conducted in 1996 and resulted in the construction of six new library branches that replaced older, smaller branches, the expansion of the Pike Branch, and the renovation and the Central Library expansion. A Q&A on the library’s website says the IMCPL must work out a solution to the operating budget shortfall, which was created by the state legislature and the City-County Council’s decision to freeze property tax rates. Officials estimated that there would be a $3.3 million shortfall in the 2007 budget, and in 2008 (the first full year of operating Central) the shortage would be $6.3 million. The estimated shortfall for the three-year period since the freeze is 2% in 2006, 9% in 2007, and 14% in 2008. “Clearly, the Library cannot continue at its present pace,” says the Q&A.

“We’re getting a lot of positive feedback on collections and services,” Bramble noted of the new library. “More of the collection is out and visible. Use has already gone up in the last couple weeks, and I hope we can move on and start our strategic plan and get the lawsuits behind us and provide the good library service that Indianapolis is used to.” Meanwhile, Cheryl Wright will stay on as interim director “until the planning process is complete in July,” said Bramble, explaining that a decision about how the position will be filled “will come through the plan.”

Posted January 4, 2008.