Continuing months of advocacy, Friends of the Free Library members and AFSCME District Council 47 union workers convened at City Hall on March 7 to call for full funding of the Free Library of Philadelphia during Mayor Jim Kenney’s 2020 budget proposal briefing.
Addressing a slew of needs, including supplementary staffing and materials, the coalition is requesting an additional $15 million over last year’s 2019 budget, which was adopted at $41 million. Currently, the increase for the 2020 budget is proposed at $2.5 million.
Enlivening the City Council Chambers with signs, uniformed green T-shirts and chants, the citywide alliance demands either a $15.8 million increase for six-day service all year or a close to $14.7 million increase for six-day service during the school year only, as in September 2018, when the Saturday hours at nearly half of the city’s 54 branches were slashed.
Librarians, union workers and the Friends of the Free Library, an independent, nonprofit organization whose objective includes bridging the community with the city’s system, all assert that the currently proposed increase is merely a drop in the bucket. Among the event’s advocates were Friends and union members of South Philly branches, including Queen Memorial, Whitman and South Philadelphia Library.
“We have 54 libraries in Philadelphia, and they’re just gonna give us 2 million. That’s a slap in our face, if you really think about it,” said Betty Beaufort, chairwoman of Friends Queen Memorial Library in Point Breeze. “I mean, the way that (city government) takes the library, to me, is very insulting to us who are trying to keep the libraries going.”
The additional funds requested by the Friends of the Free Library include $7.1 million for materials, $2.5 million for property management, $645,000 for information technology, $237,901 for cultural and civic engagement, $182, 461 for staff development, $105,559 for Culinary Literacy Center, $98,986 for customer engagement and $90,000 for youth and family services.
For year-round six-day service, some $4.8 million is requested to fund 67 full-time employees, 138 part-time employees and season staff. For school-year only six-day service, more than $3.6 million is being requested to fund 51 full-time employees, 138 part-time employees and seasonal staff.
“We’re super excited that the mayor has proposed an increase, but the $2.5 million that (Kenney) has proposed is way short of what we need,” said Amelia Longo of Friends of the South Philadelphia Library. “So, it’s a combination of being really excited to hear that our organizing work has been working, but we know that we have more work to do.”
Friends of the Free Library have reported that in 2018 alone, neighborhood libraries reduced regular hours 375 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, advocates 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, which leads to cancellations of weekly programs and resources.
“They’re asking the libraries to do more with less,” said Erme Maula, Friends of Whitman and a reading captain for the city’s Read by 4th program. “…The librarians are amazing, and they make it happen, but that should not be the case when we’re trying to serve our residents of Philadelphia.”
The South Philly 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 and does not currently have its own staff employee, according to Longo.
Beyond the programming, the lack of proper maintenance has even led to health hazards.
The Kensington Library, for example, has experienced ongoing flooding that has actually caused a mosquito infestation, according to the Friends of the Free Library.
“The Free Library has been in an ongoing funding crisis for over 10 years,” said Alice Wells, president of the Friends of the Free Library-Walnut Street West and member of Fund Our Libraries Organizing Committee. “But, in 2018, we saw our entire library system reach a breaking point that threatens its very mission as a public institution.”
Currently, in South Philadelphia, the branches open on Saturday are Charles Santore, Fumo Family, South Philly and Thomas F. Donatucci. Whitman and Queen Memorial are closed.
Kenney says the city’s 2020 budget will lend itself to more Saturday openings.
“We plan on increased support for the Free Library of Philadelphia, so all of our major libraries can provide six-day service,” Kenney said during his address.
Kenney also noted that portions of the hundreds of millions of dollars designated for the city’s Rebuild initiative, which was made possible largely by the Philadelphia Beverage Tax, will goes toward libraries’ physical improvements.
On the legislative side, Councilman Kenyatta Johnson of the 2nd Councilmanic District is leading a charge with 15 other Council members calling for restoration of the Free Library system’s budget to pre-recession levels.
On March 6, Johnson and the Council members released a letter to Kenney stressing that $6 million in restored funds should be earmarked for staffing.
“Our libraries are safe havens for families to come together, learn, share, work and enjoy,” said Johnson said in a statement. “They uplift communities. As we make major investments in libraries through Rebuild, we must also make sure that their doors are open. The budget is a statement of our values, and full library funding has to be included. It’s the right thing to do.”
The letter also mentions that the Free Library system is falling short of millions of dollars in regard to a state mandate that “requires 12 percent of budgets go to acquire materials.”
According to the State Library of Pennsylvania, in order to be eligible for increased state funding, a “library system or independent local library will be considered in compliance with the collection standard if it expends at least 12 percent of its normal operating expenditures on collections.”
Until the city’s 2020 budget is finalized in late June, Friends of the Free Library, the AFSCME District Council 47 union, librarians and other concerned citizens have the next few months to continue advocating for full funding.
“It’s essential to have fully funded libraries, because the libraries are serving all Philadelphians,” Longo said. “They’re serving our most needy populations. They’re serving job seekers. They’re serving seniors. They’re serving youth…(Libraries) are just so invaluable.”