Stay of execution for BPL branches: Trustee chairman signals funding solution

Mayor Thomas Menino this week granted four libraries slated for closure at the end of the summer a nine-month stay of execution as the head of the Boston Public Library’s board of library trustees acknowledged that if $1.6 million could be found, no libraries would close. The delay comes as crucial votes on the state and city budget draw near at the State House and in City Hall.

State lawmakers and other closure opponents remain unappeased by the Menino administration’s move, which was approved by the BPL’s trustees in a public meeting on Monday at the Rabb Lecture Hall in Copley Square. They instead seized on BPL board chairman Jeffrey Rudman's repeated acknowledgment that the board would support a full reprieve for the targeted branches if sufficient funding was provided.

Menino on Tuesday submitted to the City Council a new version of the $2.3 billion fiscal 2011 budget, which includes $650,000 for branch library operations to delay the proposed closures. The four libraries, including one in Lower Mills, were originally due to close down later this summer. The new funds will keep the libraries open for at least another nine months as Boston Public Library officials figure out what to do about the brick-and-mortar buildings that house the books and community services.

“We are keeping the libraries open for another nine months to engage with the public and possibly reconvene over this issue,” Menino told the Reporter. “It’s unfortunate that people don’t see what we are trying to do with that.”

The City Council could vote as early as next week on the budget, which also includes $300,000 saved through “administrative efficiencies” within the Boston Youth Fund, allowing for 200 additional summer jobs for teens. The new budget will also spare the jobs of 42 Boston Public Schools custodians.

City councillors said they’re attempting to find the money to keep the libraries open, and several, including City Councillors At-Large Felix Arroyo and Ayanna Pressley, reiterated their support for the libraries.

“They add too much value to keeping our communities healthy,” Pressley said.

At the State House, Boston lawmakers say they will also seek the $1.6 million, but they will also keep pushing to include an amendment to the state budget that withholds $2.4 million from the library system until they receive assurances that the four libraries are kept open. The trustees have called the amendment “draconian” and say it will lead to deeper cuts within
the system.

A final version of the state budget, delayed in part because of uncertainty over $700 million in federal aid, is expected any day.

“There’s so many different funding plans being thrown around for the libraries,” said one City Hall observer. “But the bottom line is this – the Mayor intends to close these branches. End of story.”

The administration’s move toward delaying the closures comes after outcry from opponents of library closures and members of the state Legislature and City Council, who criticized the decision to shutter the libraries as rushed and perfunctory. Citing a declining stream of state revenue, a weak economy and a “vision” for a tighter, smaller library system, trustees voted in April to close four branch libraries.
This week’s unanimous shift marked an surprise shift in their policy.

“We’ve heard everybody,” Rudman said this week. “We can have a fuller process.”

But the decision drew an angry response from state lawmakers, who attended the Monday meeting at the main branch in Copley Square and, due to an apparent miscommunication, were expecting for the branches to be granted a full reprieve.

“You’ve done nothing except to plan for the closure of these branches,” said state Rep. Linda Dorcena Forry (D-Dorchester). “And we are working with our colleagues in city government...planning to keep them open.”

Added state Rep. Martha Walz (D-Beacon Hill): “You’re just voting to delay the closure, to have a more orderly process for closure.”

The Monday meeting came after Arroyo publicly pressed the Boston Public Library president, Amy Ryan, to convene a special meeting to consider the offer of state funds from lawmakers.

“What I heard today was not enough,” Arroyo said. “That’s just not good enough.”

Rudman said if lawmakers provided an additional $1.6 million, all branches would be kept open.
“That is a totally different song from what we heard before,” said Forry, noting that lawmakers had unsuccessfully pressed for that answer at previous meetings. (Forry is the wife of Reporter managing editor Bill Forry.)

“I hope through this process, as we have in other departments, that we will find additional funds to give you the resources to do what you need,” said City Councillor Maureen Feeney.

The trustees’ decision on Monday is a reversal of the Menino administration’s position in April, after nine city councillors signed onto a letter saying “we cannot support the plan to close libraries after so short a discussion period.” In response, a Menino spokeswoman said, “Engaging in a debate about process is simply a tactic used to distract from the very difficult issues of how best to deliver quality library services to all of our residents.”

But not all trustees echoed Rudman’s position on using new funds for the branches. Trustee James Carroll said that the “underlying issue isn’t money” but building a modern library system. If the library receives the $1.6 million next week, there will still remain a “revolution in information,” and the BPL is “falling behind,” he said.