The future of Champaign's library is at issue, and those who care need to speak up.
Despite years of belt tightening and tax increases, local government's cash crunch continues to hit home, the latest example reflected in tentative plans by the Champaign Public Library to cut back its hours by 24 percent unless it obtains a cash infusion of $500,000.
Library officials recently announced the cutbacks (15 hours a week at the main library, 16 at the Douglass Branch), attributing the budget shortfall to stagnant property tax revenue caused by declines in property valuations. In other words, the library's revenue woes, like those of government at all levels, is a direct result of the collapse of the housing market in 2008 and subsequent problems in the banking industry that led to a brutal recession. Well, the recession is over, kind of, but the hangover is not.
It remains to be seen if the library's projected cuts will go into effect on July 1, the first day of the 2014 fiscal year. Champaign City Manager Dorothy David has recommended the city council authorize a $500,000 annual infusion of funds into the library budget and directed city staffers to come up with a new source of revenue to pay for it.
David said the "$500,000 would be sufficient to maintain the current library service levels for one year, allowing the library board ... to develop a plan for sustainable service delivery that can be reviewed by the city council prior to the allocation of city funding in future years."
Library director Marsha Grove described David's recommendation as a "good step" but said the city council "still does what it wants."
It's unclear what council members, who will meet on Tuesday to discuss the issue, think about the city appropriating $500,000 for the library and raising taxes to pay for it.
Council Member Vic McIntosh was generally supportive of the plan, suggesting increases in the sales tax or hotel/motor tax to pay for it.
"I believe public pressure is definitely going to get the library some money," he said.
Council Member Tom Bruno concurred, saying "many people are willing to pay more."
"I really don't have a good handle on what the council will collectively do," he said.
The library is, of course, one of the crown jewels of this community, its use skyrocketing since its new building was opened. Any decline in access would be a big problem for the thousands of people who rely on it for books, magazines, movies, computer use or meeting places.
So the community is going to have to decide, through its council representatives, what steps to take. That's also the case with other public entities, like police, fire and public works, that will be seeking increased financial support after enduring some lean years.
The library, like other public and private organizations, has made big cuts in past years to bring its budget into balance. Staff members haven't received pay raises for two years, 14 positions have been left unfilled, the library's bookmobile has been eliminated, cuts have been made in materials, maintenance, supplies, staff development and training.
But push has come to shove, and the next cut will be hours of operation if no further funding comes forward. Many people hate tax increases. Many people love the library.
Those who have strong feelings on both subjects ought to let their council members know what they think about either one of these two unpalatable alternatives.