CHAMPAIGN — Library officials are beginning to accept that their languishing finances are not temporary — they say it's serious, and they have only a few months left to come up with a solution.
Without any action, officials forecast the deficit would grow by roughly $300,000 annually and could put the Champaign Public library $1.4 million in the red by 2018, according to city documents.
"I think it's pretty serious," said Mark Ballard, a library board member who served as its president until this month.
The city council saved them this year by providing an infusion of $500,000 to keep the library fully operational through June 2014. That money came from a quarter-cent increase in the city's sales tax the city council approved in June, bringing in an additional $2.8 million that will also help fund the police and fire departments.
The revenue source is recurring, and the $500,000 could be too, assuming that is part of the budget plan library officials submit to the city council in the coming months.
Whether another tax increase might be the saving grace for the library again next year would be up to the city council.
"I don't know," said Library Director Marsha Grove. "That would be a question for the council. I think certainly that's a possibility, but they would be the ones to decide that."
After announcing a reduction of library hours earlier this year — only to be given a late reprieve by the city council's cash infusion — officials say it is too early in the budgeting process to know what other cuts or budget-balancing ideas might be on the way.
But what they do know is that property tax revenues, which pay for 92 percent of the $6.4 million in operating expenses, have been decreasing or at best remaining flat.
Meanwhile, personnel costs continue to rise, and they account for roughly 70 percent of the library's total budget. Those costs last year came in only about $18,000 under the $4,568,437 personnel budget in 2008 despite having cut about 8.5 full-time positions — 10 percent of its workforce — since then.
"This isn't a crisis anymore," said library board President Trisha Crowley. "This is the way we're operating, so we have to be able to figure out how to do that."
The library is still saddled with an annual $700,000 obligation to pay down the debt it owes on the new building.
It has spent less on materials in the past five years — $822,112 last year compared with $880,440 in 2008.
"It's really hard for us to reduce that much because that's why people are coming here," Grove said. "We're having to buy e-books now and material prices are going up slightly. E-books, digital magazines and everything going on with materials is increasing costs."
Total circulation, which spiked in 2009 after the new library facility opened a year earlier, has since dropped more than 15 percent to 2,236,736 items checked out in 2012.
The biggest chunk of that drop-off occurred in 2011 and 2012, when the library began requiring non-residents to buy a special library card for an annual fee based on the property tax they would be paying if they lived in Champaign. When library officials implemented that fee, they cited an unfair burden on Champaign library resources compared with other libraries in the then-Lincoln Trail Libraries System network.
As of mid-July, 515 of those cards were in circulation.
The library operates largely independent of the city government organization, but its budget still must be approved by the city council. When library officials came to the city council in May, they offered a bleak outlook for what would transpire if council members did not agree to an extra $500,000 per year in library funding.
Above all, library hours would be reduced a collective 31 hours per week — 15 hours per week at the main library on Green Street and 16 hours at the Douglass branch — a personnel savings of $357,000 annually. Library patrons streamed to the city council podium to oppose the cuts in mostly evening hours.
That idea has since been taken off the table, Crowley said. Library officials will "look at everything," but they plan to avoid a reduction in hours.
"Certainly one of the things that will be a top priority is that there not be hours cut," Crowley said. "At the same time, there needs to be some relief for the staff."
The library's proposed cuts in May also included less money for capital improvements and a $26,775 increase in spending on new materials as opposed to the $105,775 increase officials thought they really needed. Like the reduction in hours, officials also worked around those proposals with the city council's stop-gap measure.
The library board's finance committee will be charged with working with Grove in the coming months to find solutions, Crowley said. When the city council in May gave the library the $500,000 bump to get it through the year, it also gave library officials six months to come back with a long-term solution.
"This is sort of the beginning of the process," Crowley said. "I don't think that it's exactly that the budget crisis slipped up on us unaware."
Ballard, who also is the president of BankChampaign, does not think it is an impossible task — budgeters need to attack the rate of change in the budget, he said.
"I would hope that the library comes up with a very viable plan that allows us to treat the employees fairly, not have any cuts to staff, maintain the operation of the Douglass branch and maintain the hours," Ballard said.
This year's solution was part of one-quarter of a percentage point increase in the city sales tax, but Ballard thinks the long-term solution does not necessarily mean that residents will have to pay more.
"I think we can do it without that," Ballard said. "It's just some changes need to be made."