CHAMPAIGN — The city's main and branch libraries would be open 31 fewer hours during the week — most of those in the evening — if officials cannot close a $500,000 budget gap before the end of the fiscal year on June 30.
Champaign Public Library officials say it's an unfortunate, but realistic, side-effect of decreasing property values, which are responsible for 92 percent of the library budget.
The library has spent the past several years making cuts to close budget gaps — including holding 14 library jobs vacant — and library Director Marsha Grove said it cannot cut personnel anymore and continue to operate for 12 hours per day during the week.
"We've tried everything over the years," Grove said. "I think we've been very fiscally responsible, and unfortunately I think there was always hope that property taxes would get better. But they didn't. They got worse."
The announcement comes a little more than two weeks before library officials plan to make their annual pitch to the Champaign City Council, which must approve the library budget.
Property tax revenues dedicated to the library have already been set. Library officials may request additional money to cover their budget shortfall, but they would be competing for funds typically reserved for other city services such as the police and fire departments.
Library board President Mark Ballard said library officials got clearance from city administrators last week to make the situation public. He said they did not want library patrons to be caught off guard.
"We have spoken with administration for the city, and we were asked to request a general fund transfer from the city to the library to help cover the deficit," Ballard said. "But the police and firemen are also in the same position that we are, and the city council is going to have a really big job trying to figure out what are the city's priorities."
The first of those discussions is scheduled for a May 14 city council meeting.
"Unfortunately, we're now to the point where costs have continued to go up, and we can't really cut back anymore on people without cutting hours," Ballard said.
Monday through Friday, the main library would open one hour later — at 10 a.m. instead of 9 a.m. — and close two hours earlier, at 7 p.m. instead of 9 p.m. The Douglass Branch Library would close all day on Monday and two hours earlier on Tuesday through Thursday. All weekend hours would remain unchanged.
The budget year starts in July, but Grove said she plans to ask for three months to adjust her staff to the new hours. That means the hour reductions could go into effect at the beginning of October.
Grove said her staff spent a lot of time evaluating which hours would be the best to close. The bulk of the reduced hours are at night because it costs more to staff the library during the evening than it does in the morning and it was the only way to cover the deficit, she said.
Ultimately, that means evening programs — like book clubs and author visits — will take the biggest hit.
It also means that it could lose its four-star rating from Library Journal, which for five consecutive years has rated the Champaign Public Library among the top libraries in the nation. Circulation weighs heavily in how the journal rates libraries, but with fewer hours, Grove thinks "the star rating will go away because the numbers just won't be there."
It does not get better. Grove said that, based on the projections she has seen for property values against the rising costs of operating a library, the budget picture does not brighten for Champaign during the next few years.
"If we don't have additional funding, then I think the likelihood of having to reduce again might be there," Grove said.
Michael La Due, who sits on both the city council and the library board of trustees, said the situation puts the city in an "awkward" position.
"We've spent the last two years talking about how best to address the needs of fire safety and police services," La Due said. "This is something new added to our plate."
He said officials have begun exploring new revenue streams they might be able to use to slow some of the shortfalls in the future, but that is a long-term solution which could not be put in place immediately. The short-term solution to the half-million-dollar budget question in the next year has yet to be debated.
Based on informal discussions La Due has had with other city officials, he has not gathered what kind of consensus might be forming among the other elected officials. He is concerned, however, about how services during the evening will be "severely compromised," especially with the way libraries have evolved over the years.
"A public library is less about books ... and more about programs," La Due said. "And to the degree that adults use the library as a city center and a resource, that takes place in the evening."
A library is "a place of last resort for people who are determined to improve themselves," La Due said, and he said he expects the situation facing Champaign's library will precipitate some discussion in the community.
"The community needs to own its library," La Due said. "The community needs to be conscious of it and what it has become."