By STEVEN GOODE And VANESSA DE LA TORRE | Courant Staff Writers
June 28, 2008
Facing an $870,000 gap between next year's operating budget and what is needed to maintain library services at their current level, the board of directors of the Hartford Public Library announced it is closing two branches and laying off 40 employees.
"We as a board and the city have been trying, but the city is in dire straits," board president Geraldine Sullivan said Friday. "This is not a finger-pointing kind of thing. They have tough decisions to make."
Sullivan said that the Blue Hills and Mark Twain branches — two of nine neighborhood branches of Hartford Public Library — would be closed on or shortly after July 1, when the new fiscal year begins, and that employees would also be notified of the layoffs, which would take effect 30 days after notification.
In a letter Thursday to Hartford Mayor Eddie A. Perez and the city council, Sullivan said that barring any increase in the city's appropriation, the library would be required to "reduce services system wide in order to close the gap. This will include reducing youth services and adult learner services, as well as the closing of two branches under the criteria presented at the budget hearing May 7 2008."
Sullivan said Friday that criteria include customers' ability to get to another branch by mass transit or on foot, whether the branch serves a population with special needs and whether the library owns or leases the space. Sullivan said that the Blue Hills customers should be able to use the Albany Avenue branch and that both branches are leased space.
The library will save more than $530,000 in employee and rent costs by closing the two branches, Sullivan said.
Friday afternoon, more than a dozen youngsters were crowded around the computers inside the Blue Hills branch, a storefront wedged between a clothing shop and a Chinese take-out restaurant near the Bloomfield town line.
"Most of the Hartford kids don't have a place to go, so if they shut down the library, where are they going to go?" asked Lourdes Rodriguez, 41, who came to the Blue Hills branch with her 6-year-old son, Nathaniel. "There are good kids around that want to stay in school, that want to do right, and it's like they're clinging to what they can get, which is the library. You know what I mean?"
Sheina Forbes, a 16-year-old who attends the University High School of Science and Engineering, figured she would have to stop checking out books for summer reading if the neighborhood branch was closed. For her, the main library on Main Street is too far away.
"I think it's messed up," Forbes said.
Perez was unavailable for comment Friday, but in a letter sent to the board Thursday he and the council leadership expressed strong opposition to the library board's plan and said that with the approved $8.2 million budget, the board "has a variety of options to pursue and resources to draw upon before it takes the drastic step of closing library branches."
Perez suggested that the board consider other options, including an emergency allocation of funds from its $14 million unrestricted endowment, an additional reduction of library hours staggered throughout the system and a reduction of non-core library programming.
The letter, signed by Perez, council President Calixto Torres, majority leader rJo Winch and Assistant Majority Leader James Boucher, also offered the board city budget staff to help analyze the financial impact and options.
Sullivan said Friday that the board had little time to come up with the solutions to close the looming budget gap, but with a continued gloomy financial forecast for the city going forward they plan to examine the services the library offers and can afford in the future.
"This is not just a go-check-out-your-books place anymore," she said. "We're going to have to look at that and see what we're not going to do anymore."
An employee at the Blue Hills branch who declined to give her name summed up the situation.
"It's just sad for us, the library and the city of Hartford," she said. "It's not the situation that any of us wanted."
The library's budget difficulties are occurring even as the library leadership is looking for ways to correct behavioral, safety and security problems at the main library, which were detailed in a Courant investigation last month.
Sullivan said that the work of a safety task force, set to begin July 1, and efforts to improve security in the main branch should not be affected by the layoffs.
"We're going to try very hard not to let it affect security," she said. "You need librarians but you also need security."
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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