City Library Funding Restored, But Capital Needs Remain

For the first time in seven years, the presidents of the three major library systems in New York City did not come to the preliminary budget hearing with their hands out. The money was already there after Mayor Bill de Blasio baselined library funding to Fiscal Year 2014 levels in his preliminary budget. 

The restorations are a welcome sign for the three institutions, but they are not out of the woods yet. The $301 million in funding is a far cry from the boom years prior to the Great Recession when libraries were receiving close to $370 million. Without more funding, the libraries will not be able to hire staff at pre-recession levels and critical capital projects will continue to go unfunded.  

The New York Public Library has endured 11 separate budget cuts since 2008, which left funding slashed by 16 percent. As a result, the library cut 473 positions. Even with the restorations in de Blasio's preliminary budget, funding for the Brooklyn Public Library is still 20 percent below 2008 levels (26 percent if inflation is taken into account), while the Queens Library is still 17 percent below 2008 levels and has cut 255 positions. All have seen a reduction in hours at a time when patrons could least afford it.

“Together, more people visited the three New York City Library systems than all the sports teams and cultural institutions in this city combined,” Tony Marx, president of the New York Public Library, said at City Hall on Tuesday.

Libraries are a lifeline for many communities, particularly poorer communities in the city—providing computer access, Wi-Fi, and even free English classes. Summer programs help kids prepare for the common core. Job seekers can get career advice and resume help. Libraries even provide a place to cool off in the summer, or warm up in the winter—if the HVAC system is working.

City libraries have managed to stay afloat through the budget cuts—even adding services like computer rental programs—when their capital needs have fallen by the wayside and the longer the proper funding is withheld, the larger the bill for necessary upgrades grows.

Linda Johnson, president and CEO of the Brooklyn Public Library, said her system needs $300 million in capital funding to bring the system up to date. She said her organization would be aggressively requesting an $82 million emergency infrastructure fund. On average, the library receives $15 million in capital funding annually.

“While ‘crisis and ‘emergency’ are serious words that should not be used lightly, the fact of the matter is that Brooklyn Public Library is absolutely facing a deferred maintenance crisis that is impacting every neighborhood in the borough,” Johnson said in a letter sent to Council members.

An estimated $14 million is needed to bring 14 branches to compliance with American with Disabilities Act (ADA) standards. Approximately $5.9 million would fix fire, security and life safely systems in 27 branches. An estimated $41.9 million is needed to bring the cooling and heating systems up to date in 32 branches. Johnson said that during last summer’s heat wave, 10 percent of Brooklyn’s libraries, which often serve as a place to cool off for those without air conditioning, were forced to close. During this winter’s polar vortex, numerous branches were closed due to inadequate heating.

Councilman Jimmy Van Bramer, chairman of the Committee on Cultural Affairs and Libraries, said he had never seen an emergency request, but that he was open to carefully examining the proposal.

“Eighty-two million [dollars] in one year is a lot, but not necessarily impossible, particularly if the mayor and the administration help out in a big way,” Van Bramer said. 

Dean Fuleihan, the city's budget director told Van Bramer last week while testifying before the Finance Committee that he was open to providing more funding for libraries and cultural institutions, but considering the budget’s fiscal constraints—and municipal labor unions expecting $7 billion costly salary bumps—nothing is guaranteed.