The main branch of the New York Public Library. Even if the de Blasio administration ends the budget dance on operating funds, the library systems still must convince Council members to support capital needs.

Photo by: Ken Thomas

The main branch of the New York Public Library. Even if the de Blasio administration ends the budget dance on operating funds, the library systems still must convince Council members to support capital needs.

Many are hoping that Bill de Blasio’s first budget, which he’ll present in a couple hours, breaks from the way Michael Bloomberg approached city spending. But the city’s libraries are actually hoping that one of Bloomberg’s final budget moves holds up.

In his November financial plan, the mayor actually “baselined” the library budget—meaning he included in the city’s spending projections for next year the same amount that the libraries have to spend this year. That was a departure from previous budget seasons when the mayor proposed major cuts to the libraries, forcing the City Council to fight just to preserve the status quo in what came to be known as the annual” budget dance.”

Even if the baselining holds up in de Blasio’s preliminary budget, the city’s three library systems—the Brooklyn Public Library, Queens Public Library and New York Public Library, which serves the other three boroughs—still plan to press for additional funding, according to George Mihaltses, the NYPL’s vice president for government affairs.

“Of course, we would still be pushing for more—particularly on expanding educational programming in our branches and increasing hours,” Mihaltses says. “And remember, we’re down about 16 percent from the peak in 2008. Notwithstanding the fact that the City Council restored a huge amount of funding, there was always a slight reduction to all three libraries that has added up to a significant amount over time.”

The three library system coordinate their lobbying for the operational budget, which—after taking 7 percent off the top for the research libraries—is by custom divided 40/30/30 with NYPL branches getting the largest share. They meet with all the Council members they can to make their pitch.

“They all say that they love libraries—and they mean it,” says Mihaltses. But members face tough choices: librarians vs. firefighters, longer library hours versus more cops on the beat. “We all know that budgets are about priorities and about choice, and at the end of the day, officeholders have to decide what to fund.”

The library systems don’t typically ask Council members for discretionary operating money, but some gave it anyway. Last year, David Greenfield gave $7,500 in funds to the Midwood Branch, while Diana Reyna and Donovan Richards allocated $34,500 and $15,000, respectively, to Queens libraries.

Much of the focus today will be on the operating budget. But it’s the capital side—which pays for upgrades to library buildings or new equipment—where libraries face the steeper challenge. Even when Bloomberg took a battle axe to the library budget, he left some operating money. But the capital budget starts from zero each year.

“Unlike the expense side, there is no dedicated source of capital funding that exists that is baselined or earmarked year in or year out,” says Mihaltses, “so every year we have to seek funding anew from our elected officials in a competitive and discretionary process.”

It’s not an easy pitch to make. Library capital projects tend to be expensive, because many of the buildings are older. The projects are unglamorous (“A new roof for the local library branch? Neat-o!”) and they take a long time to complete, meaning a councilmember could be out of office by the time the ribbon needs to be cut.

Despite those obstacles, the library systems managed to secure $47 million in capital funding last year, with some of it pledged for future budget years. Most of that money came from the Council as a whole. But many Council members threw their own capital funds into the mix.

(Besides what’s listed above, Van Bramer, Koslowitz, Mendez, Reyna and Peter Vallone pooled their funds with money from the Council’s general capital pool to support projects; the breakdown of who gave how much was not available by press time. Separately, Jumaane Williams [$300,000[, Lew Fidler [$125,000] and Charles Barron ($40,000) earmarked capital funds for school libraries.)

So, baselining or no, the library systems will still be singing for their supper this budget season. But just getting beyond the budget dance is a tremendous win.

“It’s time consuming,” recalls Mihaltses of the bad years. “If the mayor is proposing a $42 million cut, we have to plan for that cut while advocating for restoration. We have to engage and inform the staff—which is hard both on the programmatic level and on the morale level.”

This post is part of an ongoing project looking at the potential for New York’s libraries to fill a critical gap in our civic infrastructure, as well as the challenges and difficult choices the library systems face. It is supported by the Charles H. Revson Foundation. Follow our coverage here.