Public libraries win case for budget boost

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New budget deal gives NYPL spending increase to maintain service amid rising costs


  • The 2019 city budget deal agreed to last week by Mayor Bill de Blasio and the City Council includes additional expense funding for the New York Public Library that officials say will help the system avoid making cuts to operating hours. Photo: Steven Strasser

by the numbers

New York Public Library has

-39 neighborhood branches and 4 research libraries in Manhattan

-17 million annual visitors

-2 million library cardholders

-8.7 million circulating items in the system’s collections

New York City’s public library systems received increased funding in the city budget for the coming fiscal year following a public campaign waged by library officials, who said the additional money is necessary to maintain current operating hours and programming, which have been threatened in recent years by rising costs.

The budget hike requested by the city’s three public library systems — $16 million in additional expense funding, along with $60 million in new capital funding — was included in the $89.2 billion budget deal struck June 11 by the City Council and Mayor Bill de Blasio.

“Today, as we face rising costs across so many areas, we need further support to avoid service reductions — reductions of hours, branch closures during construction projects, or fewer materials and programs,” Tony Marx, the president of the New York Public Library said in written testimony delivered at a Council budget hearing last month.

The library systems, with the City Council’s support, requested $16 million more than the $372 million in expense funding allocated in the mayor’s previous budget proposal. Of the $16 million, library official said, roughly $7 million will be allocated to the New York Public Library, which operates 88 neighborhood branch libraries in Manhattan, the Bronx and Staten Island. The remainder would go to the Brooklyn and Queens public library systems.

According to Marx, NYPL plans to devote the majority of its share of the new funding — $4.6 million of $7 million — toward funding wages, benefits and other costs associated with library staff, which have grown in recent years as New York enacted paid family leave and increased the minimum wage.

“The Library fully supports and aligns with these values,” Marx said. “Nevertheless, these increased costs have significantly stretched our budget, requiring an additional investment to continue our current levels of service.”

The funding will also be used to purchase new books for NYPL’s collections, particularly picture books to promote early literacy and test preparation books that are consistently in high demand from students. The rest will be dedicated to maintenance needs that are ineligible for capital funding — critical repairs to floors, heating and cooling systems and cracking paint in NYPL libraries, which are 84 years old on average.

The public library systems have seen their city funding grow considerably under the de Blasio administration, rising from $301 million in the budget adopted the year before de Blasio took office in 2014 to over $372 million in the fiscal year ending June 30. But as of the budget passed last year, the city’s libraries had yet to fully recover from cuts imposed in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis. In spite of the spending increases under de Blasio, the systems’ expense budget still fell short of pre-crisis levels when adjusted for inflation.

Jimmy Van Bramer, the Queens Council member who chairs the Council’s libraries and cultural affairs committee, pushed for the mayor and Council to fund the libraries’ request, calling the $16 million expense budget increase “a relative drop in the bucket of a $90 billion budget.”

“We have the means to do this, we just need the political will to make it happen.” Van Bramer said at a recent budget hearing. “The people of the City of New York benefit so much by a relatively small investment.”

In addition to the $16 million in expense funding, the city’s library systems also received an additional $60 million for capital projects, split evenly among the three systems. NYPL’s total capital needs exceed $1 billion, Marx said, but the additional $20 million will be used to address the system’s most pressing requirements, including accessibility upgrades and technology improvements to better protect patrons’ privacy and security.

Key negotiations in the $89.2 billion budget deal centered on the inclusion of a “fair fares” proposal championed by Council Speaker Corey Johnson, which will fund a $106 million transit subsidy for nearly 800,000 low-income New York City residents.

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