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Library cuts could mean branch closure

Mayor’s proposal reduces funding by $500,000

A city library branch faces closure at the end of the year as a result of Mayor Mary Verner’s proposed 2011 budget.

Verner on Wednesday announced her strategy to deal with an expected $10 million shortfall. While most departments would be scaled back 2.85 percent, libraries would be cut twice that amount.

“We don’t really know why we’re being targeted, to tell you the truth,” said Library Director Pat Partovi, who first learned that libraries would face a larger cut in a meeting with Verner on Monday.

Spokane mayors typically present their budget to City Council in early November. Verner said she presented one early to allow more input.

Verner said libraries were given a larger cut because public safety is more important to the citizens.

More than half of the city’s general fund budget – the part funded mostly by taxes – pays for the police and fire departments. To avoid deeper cuts in public safety, the city’s libraries often are targeted by city leaders in economic hard times.

Councilwoman Nancy McLaughlin said she’s OK with Verner’s proposal to cut more from the library budget.

“It’s sad,” McLaughlin said. “But I think we have to keep public safety and infrastructure as top priorities.”

Councilman Richard Rush, who serves as the council’s liason to the library board of trustees, said the deep reduction could mean one of the city’s neighborhood branches may have to close.

“This whole budget is painful,” Rush said.

Partovi said library staff had prepared a budget based on a 2.85 percent cut, or about $220,000 of the library’s nearly $8.5 million annual budget.

“We were able to trim a few line items and cope with that cut without any reduction in services,” Partovi said.

But Verner’s proposed reduction is $500,000.

“We can’t just cut training and travel,” Partovi said.

The library board will make the final decision on how to spend whatever money the City Council budgets for libraries.

Partovi said closing a branch could be on the table.

The city has five branches besides the downtown library. The three smallest libraries – Hillyard, East Side and Indian Trail – cost between $200,000 and $250,000 each to operate, Partovi said.

An outreach program to seniors and preschoolers also could be targeted, she said. That costs $168,000 a year.

Mothballing libraries has been politically difficult in the past. That last time libraries faced deep cuts, in 2004, the library board significantly reduced hours at all branches rather than closing any branch. Although some hours have been restored, the system is open significantly less than most major library systems in the state.

The proposed budget slashing comes at time when library use continues to grow. Partovi said circulation this year through April was up 6.9 percent over the same period in 2009 and visits to city libraries are up 5.9 percent. Last year was one of the busiest years on record.

“We can see that people in the community are turning to the library as part of the solution to their economic challenges,” Partovi said.