Hundreds from across the city, including South Philly residents, demanded the mayor and city council to restore needed funding.
After months of advocacy, Friends of the Free Library, union library workers in AFSCME District Council 47 and library members from across the city gathered at City Hall last Wednesday to call for full funding of the Free Library of Philadelphia.
Hundreds of individuals convened in the city council caucus room to voice concerns to both council and Mayor Jim Kenney about institutional underfunding the library system has endured in the last 10 years. The caucus eventually led to the delivery of a 5,000-signature petition demanding funding, which was handed to both the mayor’s office and city council.
One of the most recent budgetary concerns includes the unforeseen loss of Saturdays hours that went into effect in September. Of the 54 branches, nearly half were hit with shortened service hours. These cuts were due to “staffing constraints,” as the Free Library told SPR after the slashing announcement in September.
Among the afternoon’s advocates were Friends and union members of South Philly branches, including Fumo Family Library, Thomas F. Donatucci, Sr. Library, Queen Memorial, Whitman and South Philadelphia Library.
“Now, since all these cuts, we can’t have anything for the children to get involved in, and it’s really a hardship on the community and on the people themselves,” said Betty Beaufort, chairperson of Friends Queen Memorial Library. “I want us to be heard. H-E-A-R-D. Because, we keep doing these things and they seem to be deaf ears when we do these things. We want the people in Philadelphia to know that the library is an entity that needs to be supported greatly, and we need the funds.”
According to a report by the Friends of the Free Library, if inflation and cost of living are considered, the 2019 fiscal year budget, which was adopted at $41 million, allows for libraries to operate with 17 percent less funds than in 2008 when 20 percent of funding were cut to libraries across the city. If pre-recession levels were adjusted for inflation, the library should receive closer to $50 million, the Friends of the Free Library say.
Friends of the Free Library and union library workers in AFSCME District Council 47 feel even this figure is not enough for full funding.
Friends of the Free Library also reported that in 2018 alone, neighborhood libraries reduced regular hours 372 times due to “staff shortage.” The organization also says that, throughout 2018, branches closed more than 750 times as a result of understaffing and building emergencies.
In the FY 2019 budget, $36,659,781 was designated for employee compensation, according to the budget. This was a $514,487 increase over fiscal year 2018, which includes District Council 33 union pay increases, also according to the 2019 budget.
Although there was an increase in employee compensation, South Philly Friends and union members say the shortage of staff not only causes Saturday closings but sporadic shutdowns throughout the week, as a minimum of four staff members are required to open libraries on any given day. If one person is absent, doors stay closed.
“It’s pretty confusing,” said Anne-Marie Mulgrew, Friend of the Whitman branch. “Because sometimes, the library is closed randomly due to cutbacks with staff. … There’s a lot of us who are really concerned. I mean, the libraries are a really special, safe place in the neighborhood. When they close early, what happens to the kids?”
While reallocation is an option, many feel this process will not make a significant difference as the cuts have not only affected staffing, but also resources like books, DVDs and programming.
The South Philadelphia Library, for example, offered 1,465 programs to more than 27,000 people last year, according to Link Ross, a district council 47 union member and children’s librarian. With $400 designated for programming in the budget per library per year, that allows for 27 cents for every program offered.
She also noted the branch’s new computer lab, which is especially designated for lower-income patrons who may not have consistent internet access, goes unused during closed hours.
“I hope that the mayor and city council begin to recognize that it’s not just about a reallocation of funding, that we’ve already got limited programming budgets. The library is doing a number of amazing things, and to keep doing that, they need to fund the programs, as well as fund new staff. This is an issue beyond books,” said Amelia Longo, Friends of the South Philadelphia Library. “This is literacy. This is civic engagement. This is a place for people to be inside and be safe, to get jobs, to go through immigrations processes, and so, to support the library is to support the city of Philadelphia.”
Following the rally in the caucus room, the crowd made their way to the mayor’s office and city council to present the petitions.
The mayor was not present at the time of their arrival but said in a released statement, “Our administration continues to work with library leadership to find solutions using existing resources to ensure that all 54 branches will offer Saturday hours during the school year by next fiscal year.”
He said, last month, his administration identified ways to add 12 additional libraries to six-day service without allocating new funds. Kenney says along with restoring funding of the Free Library to pre-recession levels, the city is investing in restoring library facilities through the Rebuilding Community Infrastructure program.
“We look forward to exploring all departments’ budgetary needs during the upcoming budget cycle,” the statement continues, “however, we also remain focused on ways to improve our staffing patterns and management systems to be as efficient and accessible to the public as possible with existing resources.”