Budget Cut Sought for Libraries Fuels ‘Angst’

While funding has gone up over the years, councilman ponders adjustments

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Silver Spring Library

Andrew Metcalf

While it isn’t the largest cut in Montgomery County Executive Marc Elrich’s proposed savings plan, the call for a $1.27 million reduction in funding of the county’s 22 public libraries is raising eyebrows.

Elrich submitted his savings plan, which totals about $46 million, to the County Council for review on Monday.

The county executive came up with the plan to account for a $44 million revenue shortfall, and shore up the county’s financial reserves. Agency heads submitted their proposed reductions before the holidays.

District 2 council member Craig Rice said he thought Elrich did a “relatively good job” in drafting the savings plan, because the cuts were spread evenly among the various county agencies. But he said he is worried that the library spending reductions could lead to service delivery changes.

“That’s one of the areas in which I do have some angst,” he said.

Rice, who chairs the council’s Education and Culture committee, said he “has a little caution” when it comes to reducing library services. He said the committee is scheduled to discuss the matter next week, and the council’s other five committees will do the same.

The full council is expected to vote on Elrich’s plan later this month.

“If we feel as though something like that is going to have a deleterious effect, we may make some adjustments,” he said.

Rich Madaleno, the county’s budget director, said the library cuts were made due to the number of librarian vacancies in the department, which resulted in unneeded funding.

Public libraries Acting Director Anita Vassallo said that department staff determined that $1.3 million in cuts would be a sustainable amount due to the fact that there are currently 40 vacancies in the library system, and they have been able to save money for six months.

“The funds were already there. We’ve already achieved those savings. We don’t expect there will be a reduction in library services,” she said.

Ari Brooks, the executive director of the nonprofit advocacy group Friends of the Library, Montgomery County, said despite the assurance that no services would be trimmed this year, she worries about whether these cuts could set a precedent for future budget cuts to libraries.

“Libraries are already such a slim part of the overall county budget… that any cuts really could be potentially damaging, and that’s what we as library supporters do not want,” she said.

Brooks said she met Wednesday morning with council member Will Jawando (at-large), who also serves on the Education and Culture committee. She said she plans to meet with additional elected officials including council member Evan Glass (at-large) and Council President Nancy Navarro (District 4).

County libraries have been on the chopping before, with the county reducing spending by 26 percent between fiscal 2007 and 2012 due to the last economic recession, according to a 2015 memo from former County Executive Ike Leggett. However, library funding has increased steadily since then, according to county budget documents.

In 2012, the library received $28.4 million. Fiscal 2019 funding is $42.8 million.

According to county data, total library users increased from 24.1 million in fiscal 2014 to 26.5 million in fiscal 2017. These statistics account for the use of all library services, including in-person visits, program attendance, booked rooms, technology use and books checked out.

Recent library improvements include the opening of a 90,000-square foot Silver Spring library in 2015 and renovations in 2017 to Bethesda’s Davis Library and Aspen Hill Library.

Dan Schere can be reached at Daniel.schere@bethesdamagazine.com

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