Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

Philly libraries and rec centers are at ‘completely unacceptable’ staffing levels, advocates say

Advocates and some members of City Council say the city budget doesn't allow parks and libraries to be consistent safe havens in communities most affected by gun violence.

Sunita Balija, a children’s librarian, speaks to press during a rally with fellow labor leaders and advocates from parks and libraries who are demanding a larger investment in the next budget cycle.
Sunita Balija, a children’s librarian, speaks to press during a rally with fellow labor leaders and advocates from parks and libraries who are demanding a larger investment in the next budget cycle.Read moreTYGER WILLIAMS / Staff Photographer

Brett Bessler goes to work an hour and half early every day to clean.

He’s the only full-time staff member at Smith Playground in South Philadelphia, and while maintenance workers come by a couple of times a week, it’s largely on Bessler — whose job is to lead programming — to make sure children aren’t stepping on broken glass or sitting in a puddle of spilled milk.

Smith is one of 48 recreation centers in Philadelphia that have just one full-time worker, a staffing level Bessler said is inadequate given the demand for safe, outdoor spaces heading into the summer months. On Thursday, he joined labor leaders and supporters of the city’s parks and libraries to advocate for more than $15 million in new funding to address staffing problems they say preceded the pandemic and were exacerbated in the last two years.

“I remain hopeful that the powers that be will see how much of an impact this massive infrastructure of community spaces can provide,” he said, “if we just invest in the staff to do it.”

Mayor Jim Kenney’s administration has already proposed increasing budgets for both the Free Library of Philadelphia system and the city’s Department of Parks and Recreation. The administration, members of City Council, and activists who have advocated for stronger, more consistent programming all frame the increases as an antiviolence initiative as the city grapples with historic rates of shootings.

But both agencies face challenges that advocates say won’t be adequately addressed by the proposed funding levels.

The Free Library’s proposed $55.8 million budget includes a $10.4 million infusion under the mayor’s plan, an 18% bump in its budget compared with the last fiscal year. Kelly Richards, the president and director of the library system, told City Council last month that the funding, if approved by Council, would be “the most significant increase the library has received in recent memory.”

But Richards said it still wouldn’t allow the library to provide a pre-pandemic level of services and programming because staffing has reached crisis levels. The system is short hundreds of workers, with a third of positions vacant in some areas of the city.

The proposed increase for Parks and Recreation is more modest. Under the plan, the department would see a $2.7 million budget increase, or about 4% of its total budget. Commissioner Kathryn Ott Lovell testified last month that the department would need an additional $4 million just to reach its pre-pandemic funding level — and that parks and trails saw a 50% increase in usage over the last two years.

A handful of Council members say that as they negotiate the $5.6 billion budget, they are prioritizing increases to parks and libraries beyond the mayor’s plan. Councilmember Jamie Gauthier, who represents parts of West and Southwest Philadelphia, said during budget hearings that libraries and recreation centers “need even more funding” and called the administration’s proposal “a floor and not a ceiling.”

Councilmember Kenyatta Johnson, who chairs a special committee on gun violence prevention, said parks and recreation centers should be funded as “safe havens” for youth.

“If we don’t want them standing on the corner, then they should be participating in a program at our recreational centers across the city of Philadelphia,” he said. “If we don’t want them picking up guns, then we need to make sure that they’re safe on the basketball court.”

» READ MORE: Philadelphia is allowing its libraries to wither and rot | Opinion

And at-large Councilmember Helen Gym spoke at Thursday’s rally and reiterated calls to fund the city’s library system so branches can be open six days a week, a schedule that was approved in the 2019 budget process but abandoned because of the pandemic.

In May 2021, the city cleared libraries to fully reopen, but many are still open only a few days a week for four hours. Richards said during the library’s budget hearing that the proposed $10.4 million increase would allow the system to “stabilize” service at five days a week. It would cost an additional $3.25 million to staff a sixth day for about nine months, he said.

Gym said during the hearing that she does “not want our bar to be so low.”

“It is completely unacceptable for us to have a library system that is not open anywhere on weekends,” she said.

Richards said that given the staffing woes, it would be “premature” to set a timeline for five-day-a-week service to fully return. The library needs to hire more than 200 full-time staff members within the next year, he said.

The city laid off 207 temporary library workers in 2020 when the library’s budget was slashed as the city was staring down a $750 million budget hole. An additional 48 full-time staff members were lost to attrition in 2020 alone.

The Parks and Recreation Department is in the midst of its own hiring spree as it recruits hundreds of workers to staff city pools this summer. Lovell said the department is doing “everything humanly possible” to ensure pools open in June and July. Last year, two dozen pools didn’t open due to a shortage of lifeguards.

The $2.7 million budget increase proposed for the coming fiscal year would allow Parks and Recreation to increase the presence of maintenance workers at sites in Kensington “in direct response to community concerns around quality of life,” Lovell said. Pockets of the neighborhood have long been the epicenter of the opioid epidemic in the city.

But inadequate staffing and maintenance is a problem citywide, said Quan King, a leader at Christy Recreation Center in West Philadelphia.

“We have constantly been asked to do more and more and more, and we’re constantly being given less and less and less resources,” he said. “At a certain point, we can do no more.”