Boston Public Library trustees are expected to vote tomorrow morning on a plan that would shut branches in Lower Mills in Dorchester and three other locations, allowing the BPL to close a $3.6 million budget gap and concentrate on the “transformation” of the citywide system.
Library President Amy Ryan said that despite 4,000-plus signatures from Lower Mills backers protesting a closing, usage has gone down there since the opening of new libraries in Mattapan and Milton.
“Never in my 16 years on the council did I think we’d be faced with library closings,” said District 3 Councillor Maureen Feeney, her voice breaking. Her district includes three of the seven libraries in Dorchester and Mattapan: Adams St., Fields Corner and Lower Mills. She has also “adopted” Uphams Corner, she said.
The other branches in the neighborhood include Codman Square, Grove Hall, and the Mattapan branch on Blue Hill Avenue.
Meanwhile, at a trustees meeting yesterday morning, member Donna DePrisco asked why Lower Mills would be closed before branches in Uphams Corner and Egleston. Trustee Chairman Jeffrey Rudman replied that he could not vote to close Uphams Corner and Egleston even if the branches are in worse physical shape than the Lower Mills site.
“Uphams Corner and Egleston deal with the most vulnerable people in this city,” he said. “I would not close them.”
Rudman said that Lower Mills patrons in most cases would be well served by the Mattapan branch. “Mattapan is a revolution,” he said. “The Mattapan branch is what we should be all about.”
Ryan said that shutting Lower Mills and the Faneuil branch in Brighton, the Orient Heights branch in East Boston, and the Washington Village branch in South Boston would mean 25 staff reductions, but would let the remaining branches maintain existing hours and even expand some programs. She said she would work with community centers and groups on ways to replace the closed branches with new services.
Ryan said keeping all branches open would require hours at 17 branches to be cut 50 percent to 80 percent.
Already protected from closure and cutbacks, according to the BPL, are the following branches, dubbed “lead” libraries: Codman Square, Mattapan, Grove Hall, Brighton, Dudley, Honan-Allston, Hyde Park, and West Roxbury.
Ryan said an alternative would be to shut seven branches, adding Jamaica Plain, Egleston, and Uphams Corner to the four in her preferred plan.
In any scenario, up to 25 branch librarian jobs would be lost, she said. With the seven-branch plan, she noted, 14 positions could be reallocated to other branches and services. In addition, 69 positions at the central library at Copleyt Square would be cut, along with services there.
“None of these are easy options,” Feeney told the Reporter while leaving the trustees’ meeting.
Trustee Paul LaCamera said he was particularly disturbed by the proposal to shut Orient Heights, which he said serves a community fairly distant from the closest remaining branch. Trustee James Carroll proposed that if Orient Heights is shut, the trustees make a commitment that East Boston get a brand new, centrally located branch.
But trustee Evelyn Arana-Ortiz said the library system needs to concentrate on services for the affected neighborhoods that can be delivered immediately upon the shutdowns, for example, working with nearby community centers on possible library services, rather than something, such as a new building, that could take years.
Carroll said he would rather shut seven branches so that the rest of the system can not only stay afloat but also transform itself into a 21st century organization.
LaCamera said he is willing to take the “painful” vote to shut four branches on Friday, but only with the provision that trustees work with all the people and organizations that have volunteered to help the libraries close the gap and see if the system could raise enough money over the next three or four months to keep branches going.
The system has raised $236,000 between January and April this year, a 110 percent increase over the same period last year, but Ryan said the system cannot depend on fund-raising alone.
Earlier this week, nine city councillors wrote a letter to Ryan saying that the closure of branch libraries should be the city’s “last option” and should follow an extensive review of Boston Public Library finances and “lengthy” public debate.
“The Boston City Council has faith in President Ryan’s leadership and we believe that the men and women who run and work for our libraries do so for all the right reasons – for love of service and learning,” the councillors wrote. “But we cannot support the plan to close libraries after so short a discussion period.”
The members of the 13-member council who signed the letter, dated April 2, included: President Michael Ross, City Councillors At Large Felix Arroyo, John Connolly and Ayanna Pressley, and Councillors Sal LaMattina (District 1), Charles Yancey (District 4), John Tobin (District 6), Chuck Turner (District 7), and Mark Ciommo (District 9).
In response, Dot Joyce, a spokeswoman for Mayor Thomas Menino, 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.”
She added: “The mayor has always been a staunch supporter of libraries. As a young man he used to go to his neighborhood branch with friends to study. He very much understands the value of our branches but also understands the need to change how we do business so we can serve more people, with better resources for more hours of the day.”
The councillors said in the letter that they believed library officials need to “broaden the level of public input and participation, and search for alternatives to library closings.”
“The citizens of Boston are innovative and resilient,” they wrote. “We cannot make a decision that will affect the lives of Bostonians for years to come in only a few short months.”
The councillors also called for library trustees to “incorporate fundraising as a core function of its many duties. Board members should be able to help facilitate donations, bringing new revenue into the system when it needs it most,” they wrote.
Two city councillors who did not sign onto the letter said the council should focus on the budget process first. “We can all grandstand and say we’re going to sign this letter,” Feeney said. “We can’t just keep writing letters. There’s a budget process.”
She added that the letter sets a “dangerous precedent when we do the budget process by letter. I have great respect [for my colleagues], but at the end of the day, if we keep doing that, why have a budget process?” she asked.
City Councillor At-Large Stephen Murphy also said the city’s budget process should be allowed to play itself out over the next several weeks, adding that the library system should not be used as a “political football. I don’t generally sign letters,” he said. “I’m supportive of finding a way to keep the libraries open.”
While some of his colleagues have called for the city to dip into its reserves to cover the budget gap, “let’s see what the reserves are at first,” Murphy said.
Murphy noted that the sale of the Caritas Christi system, which includes Carney Hospital in Dorchester, is expected to bring in tax revenue to city coffers, as is reworking how much nonprofits pay in lieu of taxes.
“We may well not have to do any of that stuff,” he said of closing libraries.