Menino's budget puts councillors on the spot

Pressure on city councillors is expected to mount as Mayor Thomas Menino’s budget, which includes the closing of four neighborhood libraries, lands on their desks this week.

Anthony Paciulli, the president of Meetinghouse Bank who delivered 4,000 signatures to library officials to keep the Lower Mills branch open, noted that the councillors have the power to veto the budget, which is due for a vote by June. “Now the pressure is really on the elected officials to make their positions clear,” he said. “There’s no neutrality here. There’s no middle position.”

“No community should be forced to give up its library,” added Richard O’Mara, a member of the Lower Mills Civic Association.

Boston Public Library trustees, saying the move would close a $3.3 million budget gap and allow them to concentrate on the “transformation” of the library system, voted last Friday to close the Lower Mills branches and three others, in East Boston, South Boston, and Brighton.

Menino has roughly two months to cajole and arm-twist councillors into voting for his budget, and, by extension, his vision of a revamped, more technologically-orientated library system.

But for those who may have an eye on Menino’s seat down the road, the issue of whether to shutter four libraries also offers a chance to challenge the mayor’s grip. Indeed, as one City Hall insider noted, voting against the budget could be a win-win situation politically, particularly if councillors can tout savings they will have personally found in the budget. Even if they end up on the losing vote, they will still have been recorded as attempting to save the libraries.

City Councillors At-Large Felix Arroyo and Ayanna Pressley, and West Roxbury’s Councillor John Tobin are among the elected officials who have vowed to fight to keep all the branches open when the city council gets the proposed budget next week. “We will do everything we can to ensure this nightmare does not become real,” Arroyo said. Tobin, whose mother made him write reports on books he took out of the Lower Mills branch, agreed. “We’re talking about the very fabric of our city – kids and families.”

Menino called the trustees’ vote “difficult” in a Wednesday meeting on the fiscal 2011 budget. “That’s what government is all about these days,” he said. “Making difficult decisions.” City officials say that the paring back of libraries will secure the long-term financial stability for the system, which would be made up of 22 libraries if the closures are approved in the budget.

Not everybody is convinced. “They haven’t made the case,” said Pressley.

But asked whether they will vote on a budget that includes library closures, councillors are couching their words, saying the budget process still lies ahead.

Arroyo said voting on a budget with closures would be “very difficult. It’s important to allow the mayor to make his case.” City Councillor Maureen Feeney, whose district includes the Lower Mills branch and three others, said supporters of the library “deserve every ounce” of her support.

Feeney has caught flak from some library supporters for not signing onto an April 2 letter nine councillors sent to BPL President Amy Ryan and trustees. The letter, which critics derided as doing little else beyond providing political cover to the signers, called on trustees to conduct a thorough review of BPL finances and said closing libraries should be a “last resort.” Councillors who signed the letter include Council President Michael Ross, Councillor At-Large John Connolly, and councillors Arroyo, Pressley, Tobin, Sal LaMattina, Charles Yancey, John Tobin, and Chuck Turner.

O’Mara said he was heartened by the fact that nine councillors signed the letter. “I think we are in a good place in terms of drawing attention to this during budget hearings in early May,” he said. “It’s going to take a lot of work, focus and organized. We’re working on getting to that point and perhaps drawing support from the other neighborhoods that are losing a library as well.”

Feeney, who has also been enmeshed in a family health matter, said councillors have to vet the budget first before making promises about what not to chop.

“I can yes people to death...but I’ve tried in my 16 years [on the council] to be honest,” Feeney told the Reporter before the budget had been filed. “We don’t know what else is in the budget. What we don’t know is how deep the cuts are to every department,” she said.
“I just think we have to work through this process.” She added: “Why Lower Mills? These are the kinds of questions we’ll be asking.”

Trustees voted 5-0 to shut the four branches. Trustee Paul LaCamera abstained after other trustees rejected his proposal to keep the Orient Heights branch in East Boston open.

But Claire Hughes, a member of the Lower Mills Civic Association, noted the Lower Mills branch is not as close to some institutions as the other closed branches – the doomed Oak Square branch is across the street from a YMCA – and said she did not understand why the relatively modern branch should be shut. Lower Mills, which opened in 1875 and moved to a new facility in the 1980s, was renovated in 2005.

State Rep. Linda Dorcena-Forry (D-Lower Mills) said she and other Boston legislators are working to try to get additional funding for the BPL at the state level. But she said the city has to do its part as well; the state let the city increase the hotel tax and BPL officials and workers should be exploring measures such as furlough days. (Rep. Forry is married to Reporter managing editor Bill Forry.)

Library trustee chairman Jeffrey Rudman would not commit to re-opening branches if the BPL did come up with the $3.6 million officials say they need to close a budget gap, promising only to reconvene trustees to determine the best way to spend such a hypothetical amount.

For his part, LaCamera said he despaired of getting any additional funds when he saw only three city councilors and just one state legislator at Friday’s meeting.

Reporter correspondent Adam Gaffin contributed to this report.