Overdue Library Budget

Posted May 04, 2010, at 6:53 p.m.

Local governments in Maine have had to plan responsibly for less revenue as a result of the recession. Because of the downturn, towns and cities are receiving less money from the state, which itself is reeling from poor income and sales tax revenue.

In Bangor, the city has wisely worked to hold the line on spending. That has meant cuts to most departments and to the Bangor Public Library. Early in budget deliberations, interim Bangor City Manager Bob Farrar proposed cutting the library’s funding by $32,900, a reasonable sharing of the pain. But the City Council voted instead to cut current annual funding by $141,000.

To be fair, the council is also dishing out financial pain elsewhere among city departments. The Fire Department’s cut was $459,000, and public works faces a $329,000 slashing. But what makes the library a worthy candidate for reconsidering this deep a cut is the recent funding history and the institution’s role in the community.

Library Director Barbara McDade notes that in the current budget year, staff have endured six unpaid furlough days to address funding shortfalls. And in recent years, library staff have seen their pension plan moved from Main State Retirement to a less predictable private fund, health insurance for staff now includes a $3,000 deductible, and the library had to reduce its hours. The proposed funding cuts could mean six staff would be let go, she said.

The library, as a nonprofit entity separate from the city but reliant on city funds, is in a weakened position advocating for itself in these deliberations. But aside from the hurt to staff the cuts bring, the larger issue is the role the library plays in a community during a recession.

Ms. McDade says usage was up 9.6 percent in 2009 over 2008. Daily visits are up 8.1 percent over last year. It’s not hard to understand; as people’s paychecks shrink, they stop paying for Internet service and other amenities at home and instead head to the library. Ms. McDade said just last week 240 people had used the library’s computers.

When unemployment is high, a library is a great source for people looking for jobs or researching business opportunities. And when unemployment is high, enrollment in community colleges and other training institutions also climbs, so more people need libraries to help them with their education.

Ms. McDade hopes to fill the council chambers with 85 people — that’s one-tenth of the average number of people visiting the library daily last year — when it takes up the library budget at 5 p.m. Thursday.

The library may have to endure leaner funding, but councilors would be wise to consider sustaining the institution as an investment in the city’s recovery from the recession.

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