Students and teachers from PS 1 in Chinatown delivering petitions to City Hall to protest cuts to libraries.
(Photo by Beth Fertig)
New York, NY –
The state budget crisis, of course, won’t spare city services. One that may take a big hit is public libraries. Forty branches could be closed if funds aren’t restored -– under a worst-case scenario. But with so much up in the air and a good deal of politicking, it's hard to tell what to believe this year.
Libraries are always on the chopping block during the budget season. Aggrieved New Yorkers take to the steps of City Hall every June, lobbying to save their libraries. Surrounded by his classmates from P.S. 1 in Chinatown, second grader David Cheng read today from a bright orange flier about the cuts.
“Funding will be reduced by $404 million," he said. David actually misread the number. The proposed cuts are worth tens of millions of dollars, not hundreds of millions. Angela Montefinise handles communications for the New York Public Library system, which includes Manhattan, the Bronx and Staten Island. "For New York Public we face a $37 million proposed cut,” she says. “That’s the harshest the institution has ever faced.”
So harsh that six-day service could suffer and forty branch libraries could close.
In the past, the libraries have relied on the City Council to restore most of the mayor’s proposed cuts. Political observers call this the budget dance. City Councilman Vincent Gentile of Brooklyn says he expects some restorations, but probably not as much as in previous years.
“We’re working under conditions that we’ve never worked under before in terms of the economy and what we’re looking at, ballooning deficits,” he explains. “So in past years when the cuts were proposed we were able to find money. I think we’re going to have to do some creative things this year to find money.”
Gentile says the entire library system is $77 million short. City Hall disputes that number. But Gentile says the mayor’s leaving out money the council restored last year, and which needs to be added back again this year to maintain existing services. With that in mind the libraries are planning for layoffs, with 320 projected in Queens alone.
Lauren Comito, a young adult librarian at the Flushing branch, already got the equivalent of a pink slip. “As of August 15th, if the budget doesn’t pass in a favorable way, I will no longer have a job,” she says.
That would put her among the ranks of unemployed people who she says are relying on libraries now to search for jobs online, or take free classes to improve their English. Not to mention everyone else using libraries. “We have 50 different languages that we have materials in and we have all the different immigrant communities come into Flushing library,” she says. “It’s one of the busiest library buildings in the entire country.” And she says lots of students use the library during the school year and summer vacation.
The libraries are counting on their enormous popularity now to fight the budget cuts. About 200,000 signatures were delivered to City Hall. Whether the proposed library cuts are real or inflated, they are definitely getting attention. To raise awareness, the comedy group Improv Everywhere made a video recreating the "Ghostbusters" scene in the 42nd Street Library. Library advocates want New Yorkers to pick up the phone. Who ya gonna call? They say 311.
Beth Fertig is WNYC’s Contributing Editor for Education. She previously covered politics, which included City Hall during the Giuliani administration, and the U.S. Senate campaigns of Charles Schumer and Hillary Clinton. She also covered transportation and infrastructure.
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