A Philadelphia judge yesterday blocked Mayor Nutter's plan to close 11 libraries starting at 5 p.m. today, frustrating the mayor's emergency budget-cutting plan, raising cheers from library users, and potentially tipping the balance of power in city government.
Common Pleas Court Judge Idee C. Fox ruled that Nutter needed City Council's approval to shut the libraries and that they must stay open until Council or a court says otherwise. Nutter had ordered 11 of 54 libraries closed as part of a plan to address a projected $1 billion, five-year budget deficit. The closings were to save $8 million annually.
Nutter said he would appeal the ruling to Commonwealth Court, calling it "an absolute assault on the city's Home Rule Charter" and the powers it gives every mayor.
"Someone has to ultimately make a decision and it cannot be 18 people," Nutter said, referring to Council's 17 members and himself. "This has nothing to do about libraries. It has to do with competently running the city."
Councilman Bill Green, who requested the injunction along with Council members Jannie L. Blackwell and Jack Kelly, discounted the mayor's reaction as "hyperbole."
"If the mayor had involved 18 people in the decision-making process in the first place, we wouldn't be in court," Green said. "I'm hopeful now that we can work together with the mayor on an alternative to closures."
Any plan to close libraries is unlikely to get a warm reception in Council, which earlier this month voted, 12-5, in favor of a resolution asking Nutter to delay library closings until it could hold hearings and find other cost savings. Council does not meet again until Jan. 22.
Library advocates, who rallied outside City Hall yesterday morning and then packed the courtroom for the hearing, erupted in applause at the judge's decision.
"This is the case where the will of the people welled up," said Tracy Durham, whose father, late City Councilman Charles Durham, fought for branch libraries in the 1970s.
The Charles L. Durham Branch in Mantua was slated for closure. Durham said the solemn candlelight vigils planned for today will instead be "New Year's Eve celebrations for the libraries."
Fox's ruling followed two days of impassioned testimony from the administration and its critics. In a verbal ruling from the bench, Fox agreed with three Council members, seven residents, and the library workers union, who argued that city law requires the mayor to seek Council approval when closing city-owned facilities.
Fox said it did not matter that the city planned ultimately to reopen them with private funding as "knowledge centers" as Nutter promised on Monday.
"Closed is closed," said Fox, who suggested that only written agreements for those new uses would constitute a plan. "I've had no other evidence than closure is closure."
Green said it didn't appear the decision would apply to closing city pools, as they are usually part of a larger recreation center, which will remain open. Nutter has proposed closing 68 of the city's 81 pools. Green said Nutter would probably have to seek Council approval for his public-private partnership deals to keep open three city ice rinks that had been targeted for closure.
The city is now faced with keeping the libraries open with reduced staff. Forty employees have already been laid off or reassigned, according to the Mayor's Office. The judge's ruling does not affect those layoffs.
One idea is to keep open all branch libraries three days a week, according to two sources familiar with discussions.
City Finance Director Rob Dubow said it was too soon to tell where the city would find the money that was to be saved by closing the libraries.
"We're having a hard enough time bridging this gap," said City Solicitor Shelley R. Smith, noting that Nutter had warned that the city's fiscal woes could get worse. "To have to find that money again - plus more - it's a big problem."
Councilman James F. Kenney, who has backed Nutter's power to make those cuts, said the $8 million annual savings Nutter hoped to achieve through the cuts would now come from somewhere else.
"Having a judge make this decision, based on the precarious financial situation we're in, is really dangerous," Kenney said. "Because something is going to happen on Dec. 31 and sometimes you get what you ask for."