Beginning next year, Tacoma Public Library patrons likely can expect fewer hours of operation at the city’s main library downtown and could face service cuts even more dire: losing their neighborhood library branch.
Facing a coming budget more than $1.8 million smaller than the current one, the library’s five-member board of trustees is now considering several cost-cutting options, including scenarios that would close one or two branches.
“I would like (city council members) to know that the branch library in their district may very well be on the chopping block,” trustee Lillian Hunter said during the board’s meeting Wednesday. “ Let’s not sugarcoat it.”
The board has yet to make any budget decisions or determine which, if any, branches might be closed. The board has until mid-December to finalize a budget.
But during the two-and-a-half-hour board meeting this week, library Director Susan Odencrantz presented trustees with several cost-cutting models to meet the $24.7 million budget goal for the library identified in City Manager Eric Anderson’s 2011-12 budget proposal. All of the options involve closing branches.
“This is the hardest thing we’ve ever done,” Odencrantz told the trustees. “I’m so sorry you’re all on the board when this is happening.”
The trustees said no idea is off the table – even options beyond those presented Wednesday – but they primarily focused on two of Odencrantz’s models.
The first involves reducing the main library branch’s weekly hours of operations from 66 hours to 54, with four of those hours being restored and shifted to Sunday during the school year.
That option would close two small libraries to be determined from among the King, Mottet, South Tacoma and Swan Creek branches. Library officials also would need to find an additional $350,000 in administrative trims under the model, Odencrantz said.
The second option includes the same weekly service-hour reductions and Sunday shifts for the main library, as well as closing one mid-size library – either the Fern Hill or Swasey branch.
The mid-size Kobetich branch likely would be off the table for closure because it serves a geographically isolated area in Browns Point, Odencrantz said. Also likely spared from the chopping block are the city’s two regional branches, Wheelock and Moore, she said.
Both options would save just enough money to meet Anderson’s budget target, estimates show.
All trustees informally agreed that reducing the main branch’s weekly hours – likely to involve closing earlier in the evening, as business drops off – seemed like a good idea. That move alone would save about $1 million.
“I think we can get the public to accept that relatively easily,” library board president Tony Hudson said.
But clearly, the board is reluctant to shutter a branch.
“We should try to avoid closing libraries, if we can,” trustee Jack Connelly said.
Several trustees suggested examining other alternatives – including reducing employee hours and requesting cost-cutting ideas from all library staff.
“If we close branches, we’re going to have to lay those people off,” said Hunter, when suggesting such alternatives. “ I’m just trying to keep the branches open, people employed and the community happy here.”
Odencrantz noted that several of the suggestions would involve complex labor negotiations or simply would not save enough money.
Connelly suggested the library could immediately implement part of the proposed cost-cuts, such as reducing the main branch’s hours, while pushing off potential branch closures until 2012. The hope would be that the economy will turn by then, he said, so such closures will not be necessary.
But some feared that putting off such cost-cuts too late in the budget cycle creates too much risk.
“I would hope we do not find ourselves in crisis management next year because we kicked the can down the road,” Hudson said.
Two other models presented to trustees Wednesday assume the city will seek budget cuts beyond the $1.8 million so far requested. Those scenarios each call for closing one medium-size and one small branch to help achieve overall savings of up to $2.5 million.
Yet another option discussed – but not put on paper – is what Hudson called the “overkill model.” It involves closing more than one branch to build up reserve funds and re-deploying staffs to beef up services at remaining branches.
“It’s incumbent upon us to find ways where we can deliver the best with the least,” he said.
Considered a sub-agency to the city, the library works differently from other city departments in that the city manager doesn’t have the authority to revise its budget.
Under state law, the library’s board of trustees is responsible for spending that money, though the City Council sets and can change the library’s overall appropriation.
Library trustees expect to detail the grim cost-cutting options they’re now considering to the council at its budget workshop Tuesday morning.
Before targeting any branch for closure, trustees say they will consider several factors, including circulation figures, locations, maintenance costs, results from an ongoing community survey and other issues. Likely to factor in any decision are mounting deferred maintenance costs and plummeting circulation figures at several branches, with Swan Creek faring the poorest in both categories.
“Whatever we decide,” Hudson told fellow trustees, “let’s make sure it’s sustainable.”
Lewis Kamb: 253-597-8542