Where do we go from here?
For a Tacoma Public Library system that’s sustained over two decades of financial cuts, this has to be the question.
City Manager T.C. Broadnax’s proposed 2017-18 budget maintains Tacoma Public Library funding, includes money for a handful of needed capital and service projects for the system, and is notably absent the cuts to the Kobetich branch in Northeast Tacoma or the Northwest Room that some feared — all the makings of what Tacoma Public Library Director Susan Odencrantz describes as a “win.”
Still, it’s a momentary one.
But, first, to celebrate and commend.
In June, the public learned that Broadnax — as part of his typical budgeting process, which initially prepared for a $6.7 million shortfall for 2017-18 — asked all city departments to identify 2 to 4 percent in potential cuts. We also learned that, for Tacoma Public Library, cutting 4 percent of its budget would mean something drastic, like closing the beloved Northwest Room or the Kobetich branch.
While this prospect was consistently described as unlikely by many familiar with the city’s budgeting process, including City Councilman Robert Thoms, who represents Northeast Tacoma, it still effectively scared the bejesus out of a lot of people.
So the community rallied for its libraries, valiantly. Whether cuts to the Northwest Room and Kobetich branch were ever actually on the table, the threat felt real, and the public reacted accordingly.
And in his budget released last week, Broadnax did too. He didn’t just avoid cuts to the Northwest Room and Kobetich, he proposed funding one-time capital projects — including updates to the South Tacoma and Kobetich branches — that are long overdue.
It is a great start, but that is all it is – is a start. This is a long-term fight.
Chris Love, vice president of Friends of Tacoma Public Library
Odencrantz, who’s been with the library system for two decades, says she can remember only one other capital project – a roof repair at the Wheelock branch – receiving similar city funding.
But taking a step back, perhaps the best thing to come of the Great Library Budget Scare of 2016, if we’re lucky, will be momentum.
Chris Love is vice president of the nonprofit Friends of the Tacoma Public Library. While the organization formed in February, before the potential cuts to the Northwest Room and Kobetich branch were known, he tells me that interest and participation in the group received a noticeable bump once they were. He tells me the group’s mailing list has climbed to some 300 subscribers, and there are 50 to 75 dues-paying, voting members.
He’s now hoping to push for more — including basic things, like making sure all of Tacoma’s libraries are in good condition, and more ambitious goals, like adding service hours and opening branches in areas where they’ve been closed.
“We very much appreciate that lack of major cuts and the addition of funding for some things. We appreciate that from City Manager Broadnax. Those are the things you’re looking for and hoping for, an openness to listen to the community,” Love says.
“It is a great start, but that is all it is — is a start,” he continues. “This is a long-term fight.”
There’s a long way to go.
One of the reasons cutting 4 percent from the Tacoma Public Library’s budget would have been so disastrous is the 25 years of slow cuts that preceded it.
The numbers don’t lie. As Love accurately describes, “It has just been cut after cut after cut.”
660 The number of Tacoma Public Library service hours in 1991
325 The number of Tacoma Public Library service hours since 2013
In 1991, Tacoma Public Library offered 660 service hours at a total of 10 branches, according to Odencrantz. Though there have been slight ups and downs over the years, the downward trend has been clear and precipitous — and entirely due to a lack of funding.
By 2013, we were down to 325 service hours at a total of eight libraries — with all Tacoma libraries closed on Sundays. That’s where things still stand.
In 1991 and 1992, the library system’s two-year materials budget — which covers books, magazine subscriptions and other obvious library necessities — was $2.9 million. In 2007 and 2008, it reached a high of just over $3 million.
In the current budget, it’s down to $2.17 million. That’s nearly a $1 million drop from nine years ago, to say nothing of inflation.
Finally, in 1994, the earliest year reliable records exist, Tacoma Public Library had a total of 215 full and part time employees. This year that number is 125.
So, let’s return to the question that started this column: Where do we go from here?
We harness the community support that’s emerged to take Tacoma’s libraries back in time.