Libraries face budget challenges across Minnesota

Callan Gray
Updated: November 09, 2020 11:19 PM
Created: November 09, 2020 10:39 PM

As the pandemic continues, libraries are innovating. Many have expanded their e-book catalogs, turned to curbside pickup, created Facebook storytime videos and expanded mobile hot spot rentals.

“There's been a lot of adjusting and being flexible while still meeting our needs,” said Stacey Hendren, president-elect of the Minnesota Library Association.

We met her at the Northtown Library in Blaine, part of the Anoka County system. Hendren showed us how they’ve created social distancing at the self-check-out stations and put up plexiglass around the main desk and computers.

The Anoka County system saw about 7,000 new library card applications in the first three months of the pandemic. 

“So many people don't have the things they need to connect for school or working from home, so libraries help provide (and) fill in some of those gaps,” said Hendren.

She said some also go to the library to use the computer and internet for the job search, others may seek out resume services, or look for educational materials.

“During the pandemic seeing a lot more people come in,” she said. “Traditionally, if people lose their jobs, if there are different things going on with the economy, libraries get busier.”

The last eight months, however, have also created challenging circumstances for libraries. 

“Many libraries had furloughs almost right away, working from home, shorter hours,” Hendren said. “The furloughs were maintained, some furloughs have changed into layoffs, and so I have several friends who have lost jobs in libraries this year.”

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She said it’s not limited to one branch or library system. 

“Across the state are facing budget constraints, budget worry, there's a lot of unknown as we go into the end of the year,” said Hendren.

In St. Paul, the City Council is considering cutting $1.3 million dollars from its public library budget, which would include eliminating the equivalent of about 16 full-time positions, which are currently vacant.

Mayor Melvin Carter presented the budget proposal to the City Council in August.

“Amid this enduring public health and economic crisis, this budget focused on avoiding a tax increase, minimizing front-line service reductions and preserving our emergency reserves," Communications Director Peter Leggett said. “While we share the concerns of our community about the impact this pandemic economy has created for our city, responding to the many challenges we face has forced difficult decisions that would not have been considered under normal circumstances.”

The Friends of the St. Paul Public Library are pushing back against the cuts, launching a campaign in October.

President Beth Burns told 5 EYEWITNESS NEWS that in just over a week, more than 1,300 people signed a petition opposing the budget reduction. 

“The seriousness of these cuts means that St. Paul Public Libraries will not be open on Sundays and many of these libraries won't be open on Mondays,” Burns said. 

According to the organization, Sunday hours would be eliminated at all locations. The George Latimer Central Library, Hamline Midway, Hayden Heights, Riverview, and Saint Anthony Park would also lose Monday hours.

“It’s a real reduction in access, service and resources for people all across our community and it's going to be felt,” Burns said. “They are lifelines for the community and they’re people centers. They’re information centers and during a pandemic, with multiple crises going on in our community, we need access to information and we need that vital social connection that libraries provide.”

The Friends are asking the City Council to restore $450,000 of the proposed cuts to ease the impact to the community. Burns believes that will help keep libraries open on Sundays and Mondays.

Ward 6 City Council Member Nelsie Yang said she’s hopeful they’ll be able to achieve that before a final vote in December.

“This is the moment when we actually do need to prioritize keeping our libraries open and that's what I'm very clear about and what I have been sharing with folks,” said Yang. “Any chance that we do have some dollars that get freed up, we do need to make sure we put that right back into our libraries.”

She told 5 EYEWITNESS NEWS she is particularly concerned about ensuring marginalized, working-class and low-income communities have access to library services.

“We want to keep hearing from folks and so we want people to share their ideas and let us know what is the priority for them,” Yang said. “I encourage people to reach out to the council office, to email us, to call.”

Budget challenges extend beyond the metro. 

“Public libraries, when the economy tanks are generally the busiest and it's also when the budgets get tightest,” said Karen Pundsack, the executive director of the Great River Regional Library. "When people need you the most is when there are the fewest dollars available to do the work.”

The Great River Regional Library is a 32-library system providing services to Benton, Morrison, Sherburne, Stearns, Todd and Wright counties.

Pundsack said within weeks of closing, they pivoted dollars from the physical collection to their digital collection. They also expanded access through the online library card registration, launched a grab and go service, and created computer appointments.

“We're partnering with places like job service workforce development places so they can actually send people in here to fill out a resume and complete a job application,” Pundsack said. 

The board gave her the flexibility to use funding where it was needed, she said.

“We knew that just as everyone else - households, cities, counties - libraries are going to be financially impacted by this in some way,” said Lisa Fobbe, the GRRL board president. “We sharpened our pencils and had decided to take about $100,000 out of our fund balance at one point in May and then moving ahead, looking at the budget, we realized we could push that a little bit.”

The GRRL board decided to cash in one of its CD’s. 

“And decided to try to go to the counties for next year's budget to keep them all at zero or even have a decrease in what we asked the counties to bring forth for the budget,” Fobbe said.

She said they were in a fortunate position, with a healthy fund balance. They’ve also reduced travel expenses and canceled their all-staff day to save money. 

“In every way we are doing what we can to continue saving money,” Fobbe said. “We're cutting programs where we can, or where we need to because of the new times.”

While they haven’t reduced branch hours system-wide, Pundsack said they have made adjustments. 

“We have a few branches, for example, that are not currently open on Saturday when they normally would've been because we haven’t filled all of our positions,” Pundsack said.

It’s a strategic approach.

“When we've had staff that left retired, different situations, we haven’t filled many of those positions, we've kept them open and we're evaluating that as we move forward,” said Fobbe.

Pundsack added, “the Board has been really prudent in the past and that has really set us up to just weather this storm with the dollars we know today and plan for the future."

She said there is uncertainty while they wait to find out how much funding the state will provide, which is about 17 percent of their budget.

“Will local government aid change for our counties and will that impact their ability to pay? That could impact our budget too,” said Pundsack. “Right now that's just a bunch of unknowns for us.”

According to the Minnesota Library Association, the bonding bill passed in October included $2.951 million for library construction and renovation grants. Typically, the amount is $2 to $2.5 million, Hendren said.

“This is one of the highest allocations for libraries to date and we are grateful as this will fund a variety of projects that help libraries meet community needs during COVID,” she said. 

Hendren is concerned about the long term affects the pandemic will have on libraries statewide. 

“How long will it be before we can recover from a shrinking budget for this year?” she said. “How long will it take for us to recover a collection if we've lost pieces of it? So those are things I'm concerned about. If we cut staff how long will it take to build that staff back up and support so we can support the community? We also support a lot of community partners so schools, homeless shelters, food shelves, businesses and so we want to make sure we're serving all of those.”


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