Budget woes at library

Nothing is spared during economic hard times, not even a popular public library.

It was a standoff of sorts Tuesday when library officials pressed Champaign City Council members for a $273,000 budget bailout.

But after some hand-wringing and expressions of reluctance, council members voted by an 8-1 margin to fill the library's budget deficit with a cash injection. This marks the second straight year the council has provided a one-time fix for the library, which faces a growing deficit as revenues stagnate and costs increase.

What's to be done about it? Some library supporters might suggest nothing, that perpetual bailouts are as good a solution as any until the economy improves. After all, the library is one of the city's crown jewels and council members are using city taxes to keep it afloat. What's the difference which municipal pocket the money comes from?

The problem with that approach is that the library is supposed to be a self-funded operation, supported by property taxes and whatever revenues it can generate. The city of Champaign is a separate entity. If circumstances were reversed, would it be reasonable for the city to ask the library for a bailout?

Something has to give, a point made by council member Tom Bruno when he cast the only "no" vote on the bailout. He points out that the library's deficit is expected to grow to $500,000 and chastised library Director Marsha Grove and library board members for not being willing to make hard decisions regarding revenue generation.

"It doesn't appear that they considered anything that people might think was painful," Bruno said, referring to suggestions the library charge for parking, rent out meeting space or reduce its hours.

But that approach may be changing. Grove indicated that she and members of the library board will be re-examining those issues. "I think I'm getting there," she said. "I don't have many options."

It is not, of course, that library officials have done nothing in the face of their continuing financial problems. Sixteen positions remain vacant at the library, which is open seven days a week. The library has increased the fees it charges for items such as overdue books. But that has not been enough.

The problem here is familiar: financial hard times. A lagging economic recovery poses revenue problems for individuals and government alike. The library is pressed for sufficient revenues to operate, but so is the city. Indeed, who isn't?

With a booming economic recovery nowhere in sight, there are no easy answers. There are, however, some difficult ones, and library officials can't ignore them.

It's understandable that Grove wants to continue to make the library a low-cost source of information and entertainment to its patrons and is aggrieved by the prospect of charging for parking.

"(Free parking) encourages use," she said. "I'm trying to encourage use of the library because I think that improves us all."

It probably does. But the Urbane Free Library has parking meters, and it remains a popular, busy place.

Champaign council members provided the library with some breathing room, but Grove is the first to acknowledge that "tough times" are taking their toll and unpopular decisions loom dead ahead.

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jwr12 wrote on February 28, 2014 at 3:02 pm

"low-cost source of information and entertainment to its patrons"

From the article it's not clear if Ms. Grove presented the library this way, or if this is the editors' own vision of what a library is.  I would suspect the latter.

Either way, however, even the most casual visitor to the Champaign Public Library on any day, at any given hour, at any point of the year would know that the Library does a lot more for this community than provide information and entertain.  It's one of the very few truly public spaces in town.  It provides a place to work for freelancers, the unemployed, and students; it provides a place to sit with dignity for the poor, during our extreme weather conditions.  It saves families by giving them a cheap place to go to get away from eachother and the TV.  It helps tax payers, voters, and citizens participate in all manner of public processes.  It is basically the last vestige of a public square in towns where so much of commerce has gone to the box stores and so much of foot traffic has been displaced by parking lots and automobiles.

In this sense, it seems to me complaints about its costs are misplaced.  If the Library wasn't expected to pick up the slack for a million missing public services and a general void of public space, then it might make sense to complain about its budget.  As it is, however, I suspect we're getting a deal.  Generally speaking, one problem with our country is that we want everything on the cheap, to be anti-tax without dealing with the consequences.  And libraries have actually stepped in to that gap.  It seems hypocritical to then turn around and lambast them as inefficient or inattentive to the bottom line. We're the ones who seem to have forgotten how the latter works.