An Asylum Hill neighborhood group demonstrated Monday outside Mark Twain branch of the Hartford Public Library and plans a "read-in" today to protest a budget-cutting proposal to shut it down.
The closure of the Farmington Avenue branch and a second library branch in the Blue Hills neighborhood has been recommended by the library board to save a good chunk of the $870,000 gap looming in the library's $8.2 million budget for 2008-09.
Some critics, including the library's union representative, say the threat of branch closures is a ploy by library officials to extract more money from city hall. Board President Geraldine Sullivan, in a letter to Mayor Eddie A. Perez and the members of the city council last week, argued that without additional support, the Hartford Public Library system can't operate at current levels.
Perez urged the board to consider other options, including drawing from its $14 million in unrestricted endowment.
"The library should rethink this decision. It's devastating to our neighborhood," said Susan Hood, a representative of the Laurel Corner Neighborhood Association, a nonprofit group formed several years ago to reduce blight and criminal activity outside the Mark Twain branch. "It's an ill-thought-out plan. This is a heavily used branch," Hood said.
Hood said her group hoped to get 100 residents from the neighborhood to demonstrate outside the branch Monday and participate in a "read-in" today from 5 to 6 p.m.
"When we fill all the seats in the library, we will sit on the grass outside," she said.
The library board has said as many as 40 layoffs will be necessary to close the budget gaps. The branches were chosen for closure based on criteria that 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. Both Blue Hills and Mark Twain are leased spaces.
The library's budget difficulties are occurring as library administrators are looking for ways to correct behavioral, safety and security problems at the main library, which were detailed in a Courant investigation in May.
Recently, the library has hired an interim deputy administrator for $84,949 annually, according to city records. The library has also advertised for a permanent deputy administrator.
Leo Laffitte, a representative of the library's union AFSCME Local 1716, said Monday he does not believe that chief Librarian Louise Blalock intends to close the branches.
"She intentionally selected those branches because she knows community activists in those neighborhoods would not allow for that to happen."
The union suspects that Blalock has inflated the number of layoffs and the amount of the budget gap.
"It's a scare tactic," Laffitte said.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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