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Kenney announces $2.5 million more for Free Library; City Council members and advocates push for more

City council members are pushing to increase the library’s budget to pre-recession levels, with inflation accounted for, which would allow for more staff for year-round, six-day service, equitable branch access citywide, and the purchase of materials to meet a state mandate.

Mayor James Kenney pauses as he makes his budget address to City Council in Philadelphia, PA on March 7, 2019.
Mayor James Kenney pauses as he makes his budget address to City Council in Philadelphia, PA on March 7, 2019.Read moreDAVID MAIALETTI / Staff Photographer

After a grassroots campaign by advocates for more funding, Mayor Jim Kenney on Thursday proposed adding $2.5 million more to the Free Library system’s budget next year.

Kenney’s budget address called for using the money to hire new staffers for six-day service and to repair buildings to reduce emergency library closures, making the 49 neighborhood branches more accessible.

“We plan to increase support for the Free Library so all of our neighborhood libraries can provide six-day service,” Kenney said as cheers erupted from library supporters in the packed City Council chambers.

The library system’s current budget is nearly $49 million, with about $40 million from the city and the rest from the state and private donors.

Still, Kenney’s proposed investment fell short of the extra $15 million library supporters said could help add staff, maintain facilities, and purchase new materials to meet a state mandate that it spend 12 percent of its operating budget on collections.

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

Read more: In the city’s poorest neighborhoods, libraries close earlier and more often

Many Council members are pushing to increase the budget to pre-recession levels.

Councilwoman Helen Gym said library investments will be a priority in this year’s budget negotiations. “The central goal is about six days a week, year-round, in every library branch in every single neighborhood of the city,” she said.

A letter sent on the eve of Kenney’s address and signed by all Council members except Blondell Reynolds Brown urged Kenney to increase library funding.

The letter, an effort led by Councilman Kenyatta Johnson, said that in 2007 the city contributed $41.5 million to the library’s budget, but “to restore that funding requires an inflation adjustment up to $48.5 million."

The letter cited Inquirer reports on the system’s struggles, including neighborhood branches that face daily unexpected closures due to lack of staff or building emergencies, and the thousands of patrons who await books and materials due to a diminished collections budget.

In a written response, Kenney said he has “significant concerns with the management priorities and practices of the current Free Library leadership,” but is committed to investments that provide high quality and consistent service.

We must "make sure that the system is being properly managed, and that taxpayer dollars are being thoughtfully used in a way that maximizes the service the system is providing to the public,” Kenney wrote.

Library advocates and unionized staff, who showed up Thursday said in a release that the additional $2.5 million marks progress, but “we asked for a lifeline, and what we were given is grossly insufficient.”

Library staff are “feeling exhausted,” said Adam Feldman, a librarian and Local 2187 executive board member.

“We’ve been operating far below the bare minimum staffing for so long that while all of us are passionate about providing six-day service full-year round, there’s an increasing sense of we’re being stretched to the absolute max,” he said.