Friday, March 19, 2010

Proposed NY Aid Cuts Endanger Our Libraries

Libraries everywhere are under greater financial pressure than ever before. I testified today before the New York State Senate Westchester delegation about the impact of proposed cuts in library aid on the Westchester Library System and the 38 public libraries in our consortium. You can hear the testimony here.

Here's the original text of my testimony:

March 19, 2010

NY State Senate
Westchester Delegation
Public Budget Hearing Testimony

Good morning. I am Dave Donelson, Treasurer of the Westchester Library System. Thank you for the opportunity to speak on behalf of WLS and our 38 member libraries.

I would also like to thank you for your support of New York’s libraries in the past, but I’m afraid that would be hypocritical. While you as individuals have certainly been behind us—and we recognize and appreciate that fact—the state legislature as a whole has a long, sad record of denying the importance of libraries to our state’s economic and social well-being.

If Governor Paterson’s budget is adopted as it stands, that record will continue and libraries will find ourselves at funding levels we haven’t seen since the mid 1990s.

The budget under consideration reduces library aid for the fifth time in the last two years. The proposed $84.5 million in library aid represents an 18% cut since 2008. In the grand scheme of NY’s budget, that’s not much—only $18 million or so. But in the lives of the 500,000 people in Westchester who have library cards—and the thousands of others who use our public libraries without one—it is devastating.
Let me put the importance of libraries to your constituents in perspective: There were over 8 million visits made to Westchester libraries in 2009, which was more than the full season attendance at Yankee Stadium! Libraries are not just depositories of books. Westchester’s libraries are the places where teenagers gather after school, where seniors come for help navigating the maze of our health insurance system, and where thousands of people come for help finding a job. You know all that.

What you may not know is that Westchester’s libraries have already been forced to cut services as a direct result of funding shortfalls in the past two years. Over half of our 38 members libraries have cut hours of service, including the closure of libraries completely on Sundays in Yonkers, here in Greenburgh, and others. Some 50 staff positions in Westchester libraries have been lost in the last year alone. And these cuts have already taken place. Adoption of the proposed budget we’re discussing today will force greater reductions in service.

Declines in library service have a direct impact on the people of Westchester in many ways, but the place where this budget will hit hardest is where it will do the most harm—by chopping funding for cooperative library systems like WLS. I know you are familiar with what we do, but allow me to point out how our services save millions of dollars for Westchester taxpayers.

WLS operates the county’s largest online network, providing free Internet service through almost 600 computers plus WI-FI service and eliminating the need for each library to have full-time computer support personnel on staff. When 1/3 of our residents don’t have Internet access in their homes, this is a vital service.

WLS maintains the electronic catalog for our 38 member libraries, which means they don’t have to hire staff to do so.

WLS also delivers 2.5 million items annually in our inter-library loan program. That’s not just a convenience for the library user, but it means each library doesn’t have to purchase as many books and CDs and DVDs since their collections are essentially shared. If our member libraries had to stock just half of the items we circulate, it would cost them an additional $30 million annually.

About one-third of WLS’s operating budget comes from New York state. Like our member libraries, we’ve already laid off staff and reduced services as a direct result of previous cuts in state funding. Adoption of this proposed budget will necessitate severe measures. I must ask you, where do we cut next?

Do we eliminate our health advocacy resource centers in Yonkers and Shrub Oak? If so, where will the 2,500 seniors we assisted last year go for help with Medicare problems?

Do we cancel our job counseling service? If we do, who will help the 2,000 people who used it in Mount Vernon, Yonkers, and other member libraries?

We’ve already cut staff in our children’s department. Do we take the next step and disappoint the 43,000 kids who took part in our summer reading program last year?

Those are the kinds of choices adoption of this budget will force us to make. I am sure you will agree that none of them are acceptable—there is no “least objectionable alternative” when it comes to cuts in library service.

The solution is quite simple and really very inexpensive. All we ask is that you restore library aid to the 2008 level. That’s only putting $18 million back into the budget, an amount that’s less than a rounding error in the total.

On behalf of the Westchester Library System and our 38 member libraries—not to mention the 500,000 Westchester library card holders—I thank you for your consideration.

Respectfully submitted,

Dave Donelson

Dave Donelson, author of Heart of Diamonds a about in the

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