12 Boston reps step into dispute on library closings

Offer amendments to make $3M for BPL in state budget contingent on all staying open

As a neighborhood campaign gears up to stop the proposed closing of the Lower Mills library, lawmakers in the House are making a bid to withhold money from the city unless city officials can guarantee that none of the 26 Boston libraries will be shut down. Twelve House lawmakers who represent Boston neighborhoods have filed amendments to the House’s version of the state budget that would send $3 million to the Boston Public Library system, the sum being contingent on the city not closing any libraries.

The House is expected to take up debate on the $27.8 billion budget and proposed amendments on Monday. State Sen. Jack Hart (D-South Boston) said that similar amendments will be filed during the Senate’s budget process.

Citing a budget deficit of over $3 million and a plan they say will modernize the overall library system, Boston Public Library trustees voted earlier this month to close four branches -- Lower Mills in Dorchester, Faneuil in Brighton, Orient Heights in East Boston, and Washington Village in South Boston. Mayor Thomas Menino has endorsed the plan.

Lower Mills library supporters have banded together, raising $3,300 at Ledge restaurant last Wednesday to fund their campaign, or as one supporter put it, for their “battle fund.”

Lawn signs and banners are in the works and supporters say they are submitting Freedom of Information Act requests (FOIAs) to Menino’s office to find out how the decision to close Lower Mills came about. Leaflets and posters are also planned.

“I don’t want us to act like it’s a done deal,” said state Rep. Linda Dorcena Forry. “Because it isn’t.”

The librarian at Lower Mills, Margaret Phillibert, said circulation at the library was increasing after experiencing a slight dip due to the new library in Mattapan. “Why would you want to close a building that was renovated four years ago?” she asked of the Lower Mills branch.

The twelve lawmakers, out of the seventeen total who represent Boston in the House, who signed onto the three amendments are Dorcena Forry (D-Lower Mills), who is married to Reporter managing editor Bill Forry; Willie Mae Allen (D-Mattapan); Michael Moran (D-Brighton); Carlo Basile (D-East Boston); Brian Wallace (D-South Boston); Gloria Fox (D-Roxbury); Kevin Honan (D-Allston); Elizabeth Malia (D-Jamaica Plain); Aaron Michlewitz (D-North End); Byron Rushing (D-Roxbury); Jeffrey Sanchez (D-Jamaica Plain) and Martha Walz (D-Beacon Hill).

Reps. Marty Walsh (D-Savin Hill), Marie St. Fleur (D-Uphams Corner), Angelo Scaccia (D-Readville), Michael Rush (D-West Roxbury) and Eugene O’Flaherty (D-Chelsea) did not sign on to the amendments.

Walsh said he supports the amendments but added he is taking a “wait-and-see” approach, since providing the money may only be a stop-gap between the fiscal 2011 and fiscal 2012 budgets. “It’s just a matter of realistically seeing what we can do,” he said.
Complicating the debate is this week’s news that a state labor arbitration panel will be handing down a decision calling on the city to pay Boston firefighters’ union Local 718 a 19 percent salary boost (five raises over four years retroactive to 2006) and to institute mandatory random drug and alcohol testing. The dispute between the city and the local was sent to arbitration after talks between the Menino administration and the union broke down over the course of three years.

“That’s $74 million we’ve got to come up with,” Walsh said. Added Dorchester’s district councillor Maureen Feeney at a Lower Mills Civic Association meeting last night that was dominated by the topic of libraries: “We need to first understand what the fire budget is going to do to us.”

Feeney pledged a “very, very intensive” process on the budget and on the proposal to close libraries. “We need to look at the whole picture,” she said. “There’s a lot of questions that have to be asked. We’re going to go through this penny by penny.”

The Council is expected to begin hearings on the budget this month and into May. In addition to the libraries issue, the mayor’s proposal would have the Boston Centers for Youth and Families pull out of eight community centers across the city, including the Marshall Community Center in Dorchester and the Mattahunt Community Center in Mattapan.

The arbitration decision still has to be approved by the 13-member Council via an up-or-down vote. “My City Council colleagues and I will certainly take a hard look at this ruling and its impact on the city’s finances,” City Councillor At-Large Ayanna Pressley said in a statement. “I echo what Council [Michael] President Ross has said -- the fire department needs to be partners in the effort to maintain the city’s financial stability, both in the short term and in the years to come. As a City Councilor, I have a different responsibility than the arbitrator in this case and must make a decision based on what’s in the best interests of our city.”

A hearing on the deal is likely, according to City Hall aides.
The mayor and Ed Kelly, president of the union, said they were legally bound by the decision. “We look forward to getting this behind us and focusing on being the best fire department we can be,” Kelly said in a statement.

But the mayor, in a statement of his own, noted that the deal “contract provides a 19 percent raise -- which is 5 percent more expensive than the wages provided to other public safety agencies during successful negotiations.”

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