Proposed FY22 NYC Budget Cuts Funding to City Library Systems as Mayor Speaks Out About Their Value

On the morning of Monday, May 10, the three New York City library systems reopened 53 branches for computer use, limited browsing, and in-person reference. Later that day, the leaders of all three systems testified at a New York City Council executive budget hearing to call for support in the face of the $10.34 million in budget cuts to the three library systems in Mayor Bill de Blasio’s proposed FY22 executive budget—a number that could rise to as much as $22.2 million if City Council declines to re-up its yearly commitment.

screen caps of Linda Johnson, Tony Marx, Dennis Walcott testifying at City Council hearing
New York City library presidents testify at executive budget hearing (l.-r.): Brooklyn Public Library's Linda Johnson, New York Public Library's Tony Marx, and Queens Public Library's Dennis Walcott

On the morning of Monday, May 10, the three New York City library systems—Brooklyn Public Library (BPL), New York Public Library (NYPL), and Queens Public Library (QPL)—reopened 53 branches for computer use, limited browsing, and in-person reference. Later that day, the leaders of all three systems testified at a New York City Council executive budget hearing to call for support in the face of the $10.34 million in budget cuts to the three library systems in Mayor Bill de Blasio’s proposed FY22 executive budget—a number that could rise to as much as $22.2 million if City Council declines to re-up its yearly commitment.

Also on Monday, de Blasio spoke up with accolades for the city’s libraries at a press event, noting the occasion of the phased reopening. “One of the great parts of this city that people just love is our libraries,” he said. “Starting today, our libraries are back…for people to come in, spend time reading, check out new books and materials. This is another one of these turning-point moments, to have the libraries back for everyone.”

The $98.6 billion “recovery budget” for FY22 proposed by de Blasio—his last as NYC mayor—includes a subsidy of $402.5 million for the three systems. NYPL could see operational funding reduced by $4.53 million, BPL $2.85 million, and QPL $2.96 million. Another $11.9 million is potentially at stake if one-year City Council funding isn't restored, with NYPL potentially losing $5.3 million, BPL $3.3 million, and QPL $3.3 million.

If enacted, these cuts could mean a loss of positions and operating hours, as well as reduced services and collections. Libraries were also passed over in the city’s 10-year capital plan, overlooking a request from each system for $50 million for capital improvements, although some capital funds were included in the executive budget.

“The Library is not only in the process of planning the restoration of pre-pandemic levels of service, but also adjusting to the ‘new normal.’ This means initiatives like outdoor programming and maintaining aspects of our digital and remote services while also managing the new costs of PPE and other pandemic-related accommodations,” NYPL President Tony Marx said in his testimony at Monday’s hearing. “All of this coexists alongside an expanding footprint in the form of much-needed capital improvements to our aging infrastructure. To do this while also reopening and restoring service in a timely manner will depend on the reversal of the city’s cut and a restoration of the City Council’s non-baselined funds.”

The three systems weathered a total of $4.3 million in cuts earlier this year as part of de Blasio’s Program to Eliminate Gap (PEG), which cut from a range of agencies across the city through the end of FY21 in July.

 

ADVOCACY CONTINUES

Even before de Blasio announced his proposed budget, BPL, NYPL, and QPL ramped up their Libraries Make NYC Stronger advocacy initiatives. A virtual Sticky Note wall invites patrons to post a short message about what the library means to them, a video celebrates the services New York libraries provide, and a letter-writing campaign offers a way for supporters to contact their elected officials asking for continued library support. Nearly 20,000 were sent in the campaign’s first week.

“I think people really need to talk to their local legislator at the City Council side, but also to City Hall directly, about what libraries mean to them as adults, for their children, for the teenagers who come in, the basic ability to have material,” QPL President and CEO Dennis Walcott told LJ. “The public can play a very strong role in contacting the mayor's office and making them aware that this is totally unacceptable. Especially with the New York City receiving so much from the federal government [an estimated $100 billion for government budgets, vaccination efforts, schools, businesses, individuals, and families], how can one cut libraries?”

Many branches have been providing Grab and Go service since July 2020, and all three systems have offered a wide range of remote programs and services since the buildings closed their doors in the early days of the pandemic. Several branches partnered with the city to provide COVID testing and vaccination sites. As the weather grows warmer, outdoor offerings are ramping up; BPL recently received 5,000 pounds of outdoor furniture to create reading rooms outside more than 25 branches across Brooklyn, and branches across the city are prepared to serve as cooling centers in peak summer months. In preparation for citywide elections, NYC libraries are working on voter engagement and education around the new ranked choice voting system. BPL, NYPL, and QPL all plan to reopen fully in mid-July; FY22 begins on July 1.

The potential cuts would come “at the worst point of time, as we continue to build up our services for the city,” Walcott said. “Not to know a definitive budget to help us plan has potential devastating impact on service delivery, the number of librarians we can have on board, the impact on hours, come the next fiscal year.” The executive budget won’t be finalized until mid- or late June, he noted, which will hamper the libraries’ planning process until then.

“It has been an extraordinarily challenging year and we have never stopped supporting New Yorkers—online, outside, by phone, and in our branches—including producing more than 9,000 virtual programs for well over one million attendees, including job search workshops, grief support groups, Know Your Rights seminars, Homework Help, and much more,” a BPL spokesperson stated. “Further cuts will reduce service levels and jeopardize our ability to continue to meet the needs of our patrons at a critical juncture.”

“The Library has been there for New Yorkers throughout this difficult chapter, and is looking forward to opening all of its locations by July to further serve the communities that need us,” NYPL President Tony Marx said in a statement. “Libraries will be central to New York's recovery and renewal and must be as strong as possible, especially as we work to offer both in-person and virtual services in our new normal.”

That de Blasio singled out libraries’ critical role in the city’s recovery strikes a note of hope that the final executive budget will restore some of the cut funding. At Monday’s hearing, James Van Bramer, head of the Council’s cultural affairs committee, which oversees libraries, and former chief external affairs officer of QPL, stated, “I think all of us know that New York City doesn't ever fully come back unless our public libraries are well funded, they are open, they are strong.”

“We appreciate the support that the city has shown us and understand that this is a difficult economic year,” said Marx. “As we work through this budget process, we look forward to working with our partners in government to ensure that we are best positioned to serve all New Yorkers now and in the future.”

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Lisa Peet

lpeet@mediasourceinc.com

Lisa Peet is News Editor for Library Journal.

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