The eternal struggle for Jacksonville Public Library funding continued Friday in the City Council Finance Committee’s budget hearing.
Budget cuts took effect in a major way in 2013, leading to cuts in hours and commensurate reductions in services. Since then, advocates have wanted expansion of hours and services.
The major improvement in the last two years: the Library Enhanced Access Program.
That program, which improves educational access via the library for young families and children who need it, has been lauded. But for library advocates, it’s just a beginning.
The library’s hours are among the lowest in the state. Its purchasing power: down 56 percent. Hold time on popular titles: three months, with one John Grisham novel with a 388 day wait time.
And budget for material purchases: $650,000 below last year.
Budget overall: $500,000 below last year, in the Mayor’s proposal.
Ahead of the hearing, one insider predicted that “libraries will get everything they want.” Going into the hearing, Council Contingency was at $1.064M.
The library started off with a request for an $850,000 enhancement, to make up for some of those funding shortfalls. And a $1.1M enhancement to expand service hours, key to crime prevention, claimed a library official. The move would bring Jacksonville to the middle of the pack in state library hours.
However, the proposed hours in the Mayor’s budget are the same year over year, and the Council Auditor had no recommendations for change.
Council members, responsive to constituent pressure, felt differently.
When asked to prioritize enhancement requests, library representatives put materials over service hours.
Last year, Councilwoman Lori Boyer noted, capital dollars were used for $500,000 in materials — of one time money.
Boyer also drilled down into the LEAP program, described as very successful with 6,000 people served this year already, with multi-generational education in textual and digital literacy. LEAP is now in ten zip codes, and would like to expand, including into Mayport.
Chief Administrative Officer Sam Mousa noted that the Kids Hope Alliance proposed ordinance would accommodate LEAP, taking the budget from Jax Journey.
If the program is deemed “successful” by the KHA, it will continue — however, because KHA is solely for minors, the adult education component would not be funded, he said.
Councilman Reggie Brown wanted to allocate longer hours and weekend hours to libraries with more traffic, and wanted a measure of foot traffic.
Total traffic, system-wide, is up 3 percent from the 3.4M last year. Libraries would need more staffing to go with more hours, with Sundays staffed by volunteer overtime. The goal currently: six-day service at libraries that currently have five, a library representative said.
Councilwoman Lori Boyer pressed for Sunday hours in the future, noting that “Saturday is the sports day” for kids. However, the future isn’t in this budget.
Councilman Danny Becton wanted a deeper understanding of a library’s purpose in the age of e-books; library reps claimed the core mission was unchanged, for research and for community.
“Someone said a library isn’t very sexy. I actually think it’s very sexy,” library director Jennifer Giltrop said, describing the library as a community hub “where neighbors come to connect … an active space.”
Becton suggested a rebranding of libraries generally.
CAO Mousa noted that the library got “some enhancements”, including raises in salaries and part-time hours.
“We did what we could,” Mousa said.
When asked the future of the library, Mousa noted the biggest issue is “trying to crawl out of a hole. They took a heck of a hit years ago,” Mousa said, and “we will do what we can to ramp them back up” over a period of years.
Some regional libraries, Giltrop said, are “bursting at the seams,” fulfilling functions in neighborhoods with unique issues and needs.
Councilman Matt Schellenberg suggested a relocation into strip malls, where vacant anchor stores often are bigger than some of these regional libraries — some as small as 3,500 square feet.
“I would suggest finding other spaces … parking would be substantially good at shopping centers,” Schellenberg said.
Also discussed: people sleeping in libraries, such as those with permanent housing challenges.
There are a lot of “customers without homes” who spend the day in the library, and the library is partnering with social service and health agencies — and wants to amp that up further.
Councilman Reggie Brown notes some of the dispossessed handle personal hygiene in the restroom, which can be jarring for some patrons; that is against the rules.
Ultimately, money wasn’t moved in form of enhancements on Friday. But on budget night in September, that may be a different story.
“What I keep hearing from my colleagues is that the library is a priority,” Finance Chair Garrett Dennis said.