City Council on Thursday gave preliminary approval for a $3.5 million budget increase for public libraries, with the caveat that future increases for the 54-branch system be tied to performance and progress in hiring, diversity, and service.
The increase falls short of the $15 million bump in funding advocates had asked for, but is more than the $2.5 million Mayor Jim Kenney proposed in March when he rolled out his budget plan for next year.
The library’s current budget is about $49 million, with about $40 million coming from the city. The new money will bump the library’s annual budget to about $52 million, with a $2.3 million minimum annual recurring increase, which will be amended in Kenney’s five-year plan. The funding will be used to hire additional staff for six-day service.
“You can’t keep talking about education without talking about the libraries and literacy,” said Councilwoman Cindy Bass, who supports the funding increase. “The libraries have to be more of a priority, and they have to meet the needs of the communities that they serve.”
The allocations will address ongoing struggles. Since at least the fall, the system has experienced daily closures due to facilities emergencies and lack of staff; it cut six-day service at dozens of branches citing lack of staff, until the service was restored using existing funding at Kenney’s request; and patrons saw months-long waits for books and materials due to declining spending on collections.
Still, library advocates, who have called for a $15 million budget increase, are dissatisfied.
The proposed allocation was “a little baby step in the right direction,” but still, “it’s honestly not going to cut it,” said advocate Tamia Lawrence, 18, of South Philadelphia, who came to City Council chambers early with a “Fund Our Libraries” sign in hand.
Council members, including President Darrell L. Clarke, expressed concerns about Free Library management and operations, according to spokesperson Jane Roh.
Moving forward, funding increases for the library will be tethered to performance and progress the system makes, which will be in part determined by regular meetings between Council and leadership to review their operations and finances.
Roh said the library has a staff vacancy rate of about 20 percent, despite adequate hiring funding authorized by Council in previous years. Library management’s explanations for shortages, she said, “have simply been less than satisfactory.”
“It seems clear that staffing shortages and closures plaguing the system are the result of a lack of strong leadership, rather than funds," Roh said. “Insufficient staffing and inadequately representative staffing are equally unacceptable.”
Councilman Kenyatta Johnson introduced legislation for accountability hearings with library leaders to ensure the library is meeting goals to expand hours, hire diverse candidates, enhance equity in services, and reduce unexpected closures.
“It’s easier for us to get calls from advocates saying this particular library is shut down this afternoon because a lack of staffing,” he said, “but the question beyond the budget process is, why isn’t the library leadership fulfilling the vacancies?”