There was a breakthrough this week in the effort to save four Boston Public Library branches, including the one in Lower Mills, that were slated for closure earlier this year. The battle, however, is far from over.
First, the library’s trustees, at the behest of Mayor Tom Menino, voted on Monday to postpone the branch eliminations— but only temporarily . The new line from City Hall is that the mayor is concerned that no one has a plan to re-use the four buildings once they are shuttered. In essence, he has embraced a key argument that opponents of the closings have made from Day One: that the process that led to this closure decision was deeply flawed. Putting the brakes on the planned shut-downs marks a welcome shift in Menino’s policy; but it remains incomplete as of this writing.
At the same Monday afternoon meeting, the man who leads the BPL’s trustees — Jeffrey Rudman — made it clear that if a current $1.6 million budget shortfall is filled, the board will reverse its March vote on closures and move to prevent any reduction in branches in the new fiscal year.
Rudman’s announcement — which he made repeatedly and emphatically during Monday’s hearing at the Rabb Lecture Hall — is a turning point in the struggle to keep the branches open. It is a clear signal that the BPL leadership itself is re-thinking the best course of action going forward.
His timing, however, is awful.
Rudman and BPL president Amy Ryan have dithered and dodged on this question for months now. When state lawmakers first huddled with the BPL brass about their budget needs four months ago, they asked pointedly: Will you use the $1.6 million you seek from the state to keep the branches open? Rudman and Ryan refused to be pinned down. Even as recently as two weeks ago — when she was grilled by Boston city councillors — Ryan deflected the question.
Now, with the state budget cycle nearly done, it’s unlikely that Boston’s State House delegation can plug new monies into the budget. It will be up to the Menino administration to fill the gap for the coming fiscal year and that is precisely what the mayor and city council should strive to do. Closing any branches— whether it be this summer or next year— under these muddled circumstances is simply unacceptable. Now that there has been an admission that the process itself was flawed and rushed, Menino should take the logical next step: Make a public proclamation that no libraries will close in FY ’11.
Doing so will accomplish two important things. First, the decision will secure $2.4 million from state coffers that the city library system would otherwise lose if the libraries are closed in the new year. Lawmakers seeking to block the closings wrote language into the state budget  that will penalize the city if they move ahead with the closings. There is, then, a financial incentive to halt the shut-downs.
Secondly, it provides space for Menino and his library staff to begin a new process aimed at modernizing the BPL. The present state of affairs at the BPL is confused and uncertain. The rush into branch closures was precipitous and, ultimately, out of step with the will of the constituents of this city. It’s time to start a fresh discussion about how the library system will evolve in the coming years and what model of leadership will work best for the BPL.
After his good faith efforts of the last week, we have renewed hope that Mayor Menino will do the right thing.