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As Mayor Kenney prepares to deliver budget address, Philadelphia Free Library asks for $15 million more

The fate of the Free Library's budget will soon rest with city council members, many of whom have expressed support for allocating more money to the library system.

Independence Library in Center City.
Independence Library in Center City.Read moreHeather Khalifa / File Photograph

After a tumultuous season, the Free Library system has requested about $15 million in additional funding next year from the city, including money for new materials, building-service emergencies, and additional staffing.

The system’s current budget is nearly $49 million, with about $40 million from the city and additional support through state funding and private donations. City funding for the system would rise to about $55 million if the request was granted.

The library submitted its request to Mayor Jim Kenney, who presents his 2019-20 budget proposal to City Council on Thursday. Afterward, the fate of the library’s budget will rest with Council, which will hold hearings and determine how much funding to allocate.

The library is seeking additional money for items that include $4.3 million to hire 205 people; $2.5 million for building emergencies and facility maintenance; and $7.1 million to purchase additional library materials to meet a state mandate.

The budget request, obtained by the Inquirer, was in direct response to a turbulent fall for the 54-branch library system. It experienced closures due to facilities emergencies and lack of staff; it cut six-day service at dozens of branches citing lack of staff, until six-day service was restored at Kenney’s request; and patrons saw months-long waits for books and materials due to declining spending on collections

Both the mayor’s office and library system officials declined to comment on the request.

A source close to the Kenney administration said a review by the Managing Director’s Office in the fall found that staffing challenges at the library were the result of high levels of leave among staff; delays that have left dozens of budgeted positions vacant; and administrative decisions to staff special programs instead of neighborhood branches.

Advocates say the system’s request is a modest one. While the appeal for millions marks progress for the citywide campaign for more library funding — #FundOurLibraries — it would take more to have a fully funded and functioning system.

“Obviously everybody would want more, but I don’t think it’s an insubstantial ask, so i’m happy about that,” said Erica Zurer, a library advocate.

The budget ask seems like “good news” and a sign that “our organizing has really had some effect,” she said.

Zurer rallied in City Hall alongside dozens of supporters in December in the name of additional funding, pausing at each council member’s office to garner support. Advocates plan to attend the Thursday address, too.

Afterward, Friends groups plan to shift their focus from the mayor to Council. Since January, the Friends groups have met with various council members, including Councilwoman Helen Gym and Council President Darrell Clarke to lobby for more funding.

As the budget process goes, city departments submit their budget ask to the mayor, who then creates his budget and presents it to City Council. Council members often say they will give the library whatever it asks for, Zurer said, “but if what the library asks for is filtered through Kenney, and cut by a third, then that’s their out.”

Since late January, Clarke, who represents the 5th District, has toured five neighborhood branches, including Fishtown, Cecil B. Moore, and Lillian Marrero, to talk with staff and library Friends.

He said he would support increased funding “if it’s warranted” but while the system may need additional staff, his visits found a system desperately in need of capital, and short-term facility and maintenance fixes. Clarke described crumbling walls, severe roof leaks, and heating/cooling issues at the branches.

If there’s a need for additional dollars, then the library’s department head “should tell us what that is," Clarke said, since Council has given the library what it asked for in recent years.

The Inquirer asked each of the 17 City Council members whether they would support additional funds for the library. Eight members didn’t respond. Of the nine who did, nearly all expressed support for more money for the library system.

The need for fully functioning libraries in the country’s poorest big city is clear, said Councilman-at-large Al Taubenberger, who said he would be “very receptive” to giving the library additional funds.

“In a city like this, when so many people are grasping for hope, it’s so important to keep [libraries] open,” he said.