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.