A judge dealt a crushing blow to Mayor Nutter's plan to balance the city budget yesterday, ordering him to immediately halt plans to shutter 11 library branches at the close of business today.
Common Pleas Judge Idee Fox ruled in favor of seven library patrons and three City Council members who sued Nutter last week, citing a 20-year-old ordinance requiring Council approval to close city buildings.
Nutter's administration vowed an appeal to the state Commonwealth Court. Nutter called Fox's ruling a "complete violation of the fundamental tenets" of the city's Home Rule Charter.
Fox, speaking to a packed courtroom after a two-day hearing, said Nutter could have presented his plan for library closures to Council for consideration.
"He did not do that," she said.
Fox also dismissed an announcement from Nutter Monday that he was seeking nonprofit agencies to operate programs in the 11 branches. City attorneys argued in court that the buildings were not really being closed.
"Closed is closed," said Fox, who had noted that no plans to reopen the buildings would be in place by Friday, the first day they would stop being libraries. "The mayor used the word closed."
Nutter yesterday said his staff "will make every effort to comply with the judge's order."
Sources familiar with how Nutter's administration is now preparing for that say the 11 branches set for closure will be open on a reduced schedule, likely a few days a week, staffed by library employees being paid overtime. That reduced schedule could eventually spread to every library branch in the city.
The 11 branch closures would save the city $36 million from now until 2013. City officials have repeatedly warned that those savings would have to come from elsewhere in the budget if the 11 branches remained open.
Amy Dougherty, executive director of the Friends of The Free Library, testified Monday that her group had suggested "equitable service cuts across the system." That would solve the city's budget problem with "shared sacrifice," Dougherty added.
Nutter on Nov. 6 announced plans to close the branches, among other budget cuts. The city faces a deficit of at least $1 billion in the five-year financial plan.
Nutter is now expected to ask Council to consider legislation approving the library closures.
Irv Ackelsberg, an attorney for the seven library patrons, said after Fox's ruling that Council should be given the chance to debate the issue.
"It may in fact be that at the end of the day we have to close branches," Ackelsberg said. "Maybe the city can't afford the treasures that we have."
Ackelsberg also suggested the city delay today's launch of the 3-1-1 system, a non-emergency phone line for people with questions about city services.
"Maybe they'll have to put that off for a while until we're sure we have the money to do it," he said. "Between our libraries and a new communications system, I think the choice is pretty obvious which has a higher priority."
The library closures included layoffs for 47 employees. Some of those workers were offered jobs in the new 3-1-1 department.
Cathy Scott, president of District Council 47, which represents library employees, interpreted Fox's ruling as putting a stop for now to those layoffs.
Ackelsberg was unsure how the layoffs are impacted.
City Finance Director Rob Dubow said library employees are still moving to the 3-1-1 system.
With the 11 branches to be staffed with overtime, Council will soon face the question of how to deal with the proposed closings.
Council members Bill Green, Jannie Blackwell and Jack Kelly filed one of the two suits against Nutter. Green attended the hearings. Blackwell and Kelly did not.
Council President Anna Verna and members Marian Tasco, Jim Kenney and Frank DiCicco stood with Nutter Monday as he spoke about having nonprofits take over the branch buildings.
Council, on winter break until Jan. 22, voted 12-5 on Dec. 4 to support a nonbinding resolution asking Nutter to delay the closures until hearings were held.
Green yesterday said he anticipates that his colleagues who supported the resolution would take up the cause again. "I would think most of those people will be there on this issue," he said.
Nutter's appeal of this case could put to rest a 20-year-old question: Who in city government controls the closure of publicly owned buildings?
Council in 1988 passed the legislation over the objections of then-Mayor W. Wilson Goode Sr., who challenged the law in court.
A Common Pleas judge struck down the law, saying it conflicted with the Home Rule Charter. Council appealed to Commonwealth Court, which returned it to the lower court on procedural issues.
The case did not move forward from there. *
Staff writer Catherine Lucey contributed to this report.