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Two of them want to claim the savings, but library officials say that would doom two more branches.

By Tom Bell tbell@mainetoday.com
Staff Writer                                                    [ Portland Press Herald ]

PORTLAND – City councilors concerned about the planned closure of three branch libraries say they have figured out a way to keep them open as community centers — by giving less money to the city’s library system.

But library officials warn that additional funding cuts could force them to close the two remaining branches, the Peaks Island Branch and the popular Burbank Branch in Deering Center.

The tension between library officials and city councilors illustrates one of the least understood features of the city budget. While Portland taxpayers are funding $3.1 million of the library system’s $3.8 million budget, the system has an independent board of trustees that decides how to spend the money.

Looking ahead to a third consecutive year without a funding increase from the city, that board has decided to close three branches: Munjoy, Reiche and Riverton.

City Councilors John Anton and David Marshall say the three branches are in the cities poorest neighborhoods and serve as “safe community places,” especially for young people and senior citizens. The branches are also located in city-owned buildings.

After the library staff and the books are taken away, the city will still need to provide programs in those facilities, particularly for the young and the elderly, Anton said.

“Young people and senior citizens need places to go, to escape social isolation and have access to materials and a social structure they might not have otherwise,” he said.

Anton and Marshall say they understand the library system’s funding problems.

The city has flat-funded the library system for the past two years, and City Manager Joe Gray has proposed flat-funding it again for the year that starts July 1. At the same time, revenue shortfalls have caused the city to cut its own staffing, programs and services.

As Portland officials look for money to fund programs in the branch libraries, Anton and Marshall say it makes sense to reduce the city’s payments to the library system by the same amount the system would save by closing the branches. Library officials say that closing the branches would save $160,000 a year.

Councilor John Coyne, who serves with Anton on the council’s Finance Committee, said he is disappointed with the decision to close three library branches and is open to Anton and Marshall’s proposal.

But Portland has more branches per capita than any other city in New England and the mid-Atlantic states, said the Portland Public Library system’s executive director, Steve Podgajny.

He said that maintaining five branches is unsustainable and that library officials believe they can be more efficient if they improve the level of service and expand the hours at the main branch, on Congress Street.

Savings from the closures would allow the main branch to be open on Mondays once again, he said. Library officials started closing the main branch on Mondays to save money in the 2008-09 budget.

Podgajny said the closures would also let the library system cover increased costs, such as the 4 percent pay raise in the contract with the union that represents library workers. Last year, the workers’ pay was frozen.

He said the library system can still serve neighborhoods by forming partnerships with other organizations, like the Portland Housing Authority.

Podgajny said he’s frustrated by the councilors’ criticism. He said the branch closures represent the kind of innovative restructuring that city officials have called for but now seem reluctant to accept when it affects their own neighborhoods.

“If we weren’t doing this, we would be subject to people criticizing us for not having a vision,” he said. “It’s almost a can’t-win situation.”

Munjoy Hill has had a branch library since 1958. The branches at Riverton and Reiche were established in the mid-1970s.

The library’s main branch is by far the busiest. Nearly 400,000 items were borrowed from it in 2008-09, the last full year before work began on a recently completed $7.3 million renovation.

Last year, 250,000 items were borrowed from the Burbank Branch, which is the fifth-busiest library in Maine. About 60,000 items were borrowed from the Riverton Branch and 88,000 were borrowed from the Munjoy Branch.

Councilor Jill Duson, who chairs the Finance Committee, said some constituents have asked her why other city departments are in line for cuts while the library stands to get the same amount of money it got last year.

“Compared to everybody else, that’s practically an increase,” she said. 

Staff Writer Tom Bell can be contacted at 791-6369 or at: tbell@pressherald.com

Reiche Branch Protest Photos – 2008

Hi Folks!  Library meeting TONIGHT!
 
East End Community School
195 North Street
7pm
 
Steve Podgajny (PPL Director) and
Kevin Donoghue (District 1 Councilor)
are heading up a discussion about the EECS/Munjoy library
 
SAVE THE BRANCHES!
 
 
Jo Coyne <jocoyne@gwi.net> wrote:
Hi, Ed and Janice – Just want to be sure you both know that there’s a meeting tomorrow (8/13) at 7 p.m., at the East End Community School. Steve Podgajny and Kevin Donoghue are heading up a discussion about the EECS/Munjoy library. I believe PPL will begin moving the children’s collection from the main library to EECS the following day. I can’t attend because WENA meets at the same time and we have our own library/community center issues on the table. I’m hoping that one or both of you might be able to attend and/or help get the word out to others.
 
I know that despite PPL’s plans to the contrary, questions are still being raised about why the entire children’s collection is going there, rather than being spread among EECS, Reiche and Riverton, the three shared library/school facilities. We’ve made noise over here about having wall shelving installed in the school music room (which was built as part of the community center) with the space to be used as needed by the school and by the library at other times. I believe Steve was told that wasn’t possible but perhaps that could change were enough community pressure brought to bear.
 
Ed, do you think EECS parents understand the implications on instruction of having the school collection boxed up and most of the instructional space taken away? I hope there’s a good turnout of concerned citizens! Jo

MAINE VOICES  [Portland Press Herald Op-Ed]
Library decisions not made lightly

Ten percent of the system’s staff are still scheduled to lose their positions.

By TAFFY FIELD and PETER MERRILL
 
May 31, 2008

ABOUT THE AUTHORS

Taffy Field is president and Peter Merrill is past president of the Portland Public Library Board of Trustees.

Two recent editorials suggested that the Portland Public Library should have been able to cut $30,000 from its budget without closing any branches.

We wish it were that simple. The Press Herald also thinks that the library should have allowed enough time for a full public discussion before deciding to close the Reiche branch.

We also wish this was that simple. But the facts are more complicated, and the circumstances were not so generous.

Here’s why: In mid-January we were informed that the city planned to reduce our existing funding by $25,000. Doing that was as simple as the Press Herald suggests. We stopped buying books and other materials and froze staff training.

We were also told that we should expect flat funding for the fiscal year starting in July. This was confirmed in March.

Given the increases in fuel and health insurance, a modest salary increase for our staff, and cuts from the state and the county, flat funding meant that we needed to cut $175,000 from our budget.

In response, we set goals and principles to guide our decisions. Since 70 percent of our budget is personnel costs, there was no painless way to make the cuts. We needed to reduce the points of contact with the public in a way that would maintain quality.

We were relieved that we were able to do this without closing any branches. It came, however, at great cost to the fine people who work at the library: 10 percent would lose their jobs.

This tragedy has been lost behind the headlines about closing the Reiche branch.

These hard-working, faithful employees are going to lose their jobs through no fault of their own. We appreciate their service and regret their loss.

To reduce points of contact, we need to reconfigure the layout of our Main branch and reduce hours. We will have to close for two weeks to do this.

When we are done, the public computers will be on the ground floor, audio-visual will be on the main floor, and most of the children’s materials will be temporarily consolidated at the Munjoy branch.

New periodicals will be on the third floor where we will create a reading area. These changes (and others) will allow us to reduce the number of staff needed.

These are dramatic changes, but another shoe was about to drop. In early April, just weeks before the City Council’s public hearing on the budget, we were informed that we needed to cut an additional $50,000, pushing the total reduction needed to approximately $225,000.

We had protected the branches throughout this process, but could no longer do so. We were out of options and we were out of time.

The council’s Finance Committee recognized our challenge and restored $20,000, but to find an additional $30,000 on top of the cuts we had made would require a major cut the amount of money we spend on books. Although we hated the Reiche decision, we did not want to attack the fundamental quality of our institution.

We are grateful to the council and the city manager for keeping Reiche open another year.

This will allow for the public dialogue the Press Herald, the council and the library would like. We have just had the only kind of dialogue the timing of the budget process allowed.

We look forward to a broader, city-wide discussion of how we can best serve peoples needs given our financial limits.

The Portland Public Library was created in 1867 when the city of Portland proposed that a group of leading citizens make their private lending library available to all. In return, the city offered space and support.

That initial public-private partnership has developed into the finest library system in the state. While we face financial challenges, we are dedicated to maintaining the excellence of the library for all who use it.

— Special to the Press Herald

 

Editorials [Portland Press Herald]
 
City should pressure library to carry through on planning

A one-year reprieve for the Reiche branch should be enough time to set priorities.

May 21, 2008

The Portland City Council got through a tough financial season Monday by passing a budget for next year that cuts services and increases taxes.

One of the most difficult issues was not one of the big-ticket items. It involved adding $30,000 to the $185 million budget to put off what one councilor called “the summary execution” of the Reiche School library branch, which had been slated for closure in a last-minute budget move.

The community will keep its library for one more year while library officials study the best use of their limited resources.

The way it occurred, however, points to a weakness in the way the city’s library system is funded.

The Portland Public Library is an independent nonprofit that is governed by a board of trustees. About 80 percent of its funding comes from Portland taxpayers, and the rest is raised privately. This structure gives the city influence on the total amount the library will receive, but virtually none on how it is spent.

It is difficult to believe that out of a $3 million appropriation, the library could not find another way to cut $30,000 and save the branch from closure. But that decision is made by the trustees and not by elected officials. So councilors were faced with the decision to restore the money to the library budget or see the Reiche branch close.

If city taxpayers are responsible for such a big share of the library budget, they should have more say in how it is spent.

The library trustees should take the time they have been given to go out to the people who are supporting their work and find out the type and locations of the services that people of Portland need from them.

If branches should be closed, library officials should announce it earlier in the budget process and do a better job explaining why it’s necessary.

 

We did it! Reiche library will stay open…but we have our work cut out for us for the next year if its presence is to be permanent.
 
After two weeks of speaking out in support of Reiche branch library, we can celebrate the restoration of $30,000 in funding that will allow the library to remain open for at least one more year. PPL Director Stephen Podgajny and the PPL Trustees have promised extensive long-range planning with public input during the coming year.
 
District 2 Councilor Dave Marshall asked the Council on May 19 to restore $30,000 from the contingency fund. Residents who contacted City Councilors to ask for their support were pleased that the vote was 6 – 1 in favor of Marshall’s resolution. Jill Duson was the lone councilor to vote against the measure, saying that she couldn’t suport last-minute changes to the budget because the finance committee had worked hard to balance competing community interests.
 
We asked the City Councilors for their help. Now let’s be sure to thank them. Please let Dave Marshall know that we’re grateful for his leadership, especially in sponsoring the resolution. Please thank John Anton for supporting the process so strongly and let Councilors Cohen, Donoghue, Leeman, Mavodones, Skolnik and Suslovic know how much we appreciate their affirmative votes. Contact information may be found at http://www.portlandmaine.gov/citycou.htm . Another person to thank as you see him in the neighborhood is State Representative Jon Hinck, who was with us every step of the way.
 
We will keep you posted on PPL’s long-range planning process, which will eventually determine the fate of Reiche and other branch libraries. Please be ready to raise your voice (again!) when the time is right. A good way to stay close to the process would be to join the newly formed Friends of Reiche. Just email us at wendneighborhood@yahoo.com  to let us know that you’re interested.

[West End Neighborhood Association]

 

Approved Portland city budget spares Reiche library

City councilors pass a $185 million budget that will reduce the number of polling places.

By KELLEY BOUCHARD, Staff Writer [Portland Press Herald]
 
May 20, 2008

The Reiche Branch of the Portland Public Library will stay open for another year, but the number of polling places will be reduced from 16 to six, under a $185 million municipal budget that was approved unanimously by the Portland City Council on Monday.

Both issues generated strong public reaction in the final week of deliberation over a budget that reduced many city services and eliminated 93 jobs through attrition and layoffs.

Councilors voted 8-1 to restore $30,000 for the Reiche Branch, as proposed by Councilor David Marshall. They transferred the money from a contingency fund, so the change didn’t increase the municipal budget. The main library and its five branches will get the same appropriation – $3.1 million – that they got this fiscal year, covering 82 percent of the library budget.

Councilors who supported the measure said they were swayed by library officials’ promise that it would give them a year to analyze their facilities and services and work with the community to develop a long-range plan to address rising costs, limited financial resources and changing library needs.

“We need to avoid the summary execution of the Reiche Branch that the library trustees have proposed,” said Councilor Daniel Skolnik.

Councilor Jill Duson, who opposed restoring the Reiche Branch’s funding, said she couldn’t support last-minute changes to the budget because the finance committee worked hard to balance competing community interests.

“They all resonate with me,” Duson said.

The council strongly backed City Clerk Linda Cohen’s plan to save about $15,000 on major elections, which cost about $40,000 each. The plan reduces the number of mainland polling places from two to one in Districts 1 and 2, and from three to one in Districts 3, 4 and 5. It also eliminates polling places on Cliff and Great Diamond islands, but keeps one on Peaks Island.

Nine residents spoke against Cohen’s plan, saying that it will decrease voters’ access and increase lines at the polls, which could discourage people from voting, especially younger voters. One resident supported the reduction, saying he had lived in larger cities that had fewer polling places.

In the end, the council voted 7-2 against a proposal by Councilor Kevin Donoghue, which Marshall supported, to keep polling places on Cliff and Great Diamond islands, which cost a total of $2,500 per election. Donoghue said it would be costly and inconvenient for islanders to take a ferry to vote at the District 1 polling place on the mainland.

Most councilors said they believe Cohen will promote public awareness of the changes and encourage voter participation, especially through absentee voting, which represents 30 percent to 50 percent of voting statewide.

In a memo to the council, Cohen said participation increased from 31,000 voters in the 2000 presidential election, when Portland had 24 polling places, to 35,000 voters in the 2004 presidential election, when there were 17 polling places.

In passing the budget, the council also set a property tax rate for the year that starts July 1. The combined $274.5 million for municipal and school budgets will increase Portland’s tax rate by 64 cents (3.7 percent), from $17.10 to $17.74 per $1,000 of assessed property value. At that rate, the tax bill on a $230,000 home will increase $147, from $3,933 to $4,080.

The city budget is $1 million (0.5 percent) higher than the current budget, which ends June 30.

The council and Portland voters previously approved an $89.5 million school budget that eliminated 48 jobs – 28 positions left vacant this year and 20 positions to be cut in 2008-09.

The school budget for the coming year is $3.85 million (4.5 percent) higher than the current $85.7 million budget.

Staff Writer Kelley Bouchard can be contacted at 791-6328 or at:

kbouchard@pressherald.com

 

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