Tuscaloosa Public Library Battles Continued Budget Constraints

Laveta Brigham

TUSCALOOSA, AL. — The Tuscaloosa Public Library, even prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, worked to cut costs wherever possible to stay economically feasible while not reducing its services. But with an ongoing public health and financial crisis dictating nearly every facet of life, the future becomes that much more uncertain […]

TUSCALOOSA, AL. — The Tuscaloosa Public Library, even prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, worked to cut costs wherever possible to stay economically feasible while not reducing its services. But with an ongoing public health and financial crisis dictating nearly every facet of life, the future becomes that much more uncertain not just for the library system, but for the entities providing its funding.

TPL Director Rick Freeman addressed the Tuscaloosa City Council’s Finance Committee Tuesday afternoon to speak to the myriad challenges facing the system and the steps undertaken to mitigate the effects.

“We’ve got our staff down about as small as we can cut it,” he said. “We’ve doubled up on duties for most of my upper management, but the staffing plan for this year is to continue the hiring freeze.”

Freeman also pointed out that there will be no step or cost of living raises for library employees, in addition to losing out on a work study program with the University of Alabama that would have otherwise seen the TPL hire student employees. The influx of patrons during the summer was also absent, which would have seen the library hire more seasonal workers under normal circumstances.

In looking at the broad range of cuts, Freeman said the library system plans on reducing programming by 80% at the main branch and by 50% at both the Brown and Weaver-Bolden branches.

“[Under the proposed budget], we would eliminate all of the Bookmobile visits and replace those with drop-off service only,” Freeman said. “Right now, we do hundreds of school visits and outside things like nursing homes, health fairs, things like that across the year and we would have to reduce those severely.”

Freeman’s projections were also made under the assumption that each of its funding sources cut their individual contributions by 38% — the total provided by the city of Tuscaloosa in its proposed budget for Fiscal Year 2021.

The largest portion of the library’s funding comes from the city of Tuscaloosa and Tuscaloosa County, who both contribute well over $1 million annually, while also receiving funding from the state, grants, fines, fundraising efforts and the city of Northport.

The funding from Northport, or lack thereof, also stood out as a primary talking point relating to the library’s budget.

Freeman lamented the disconnect of the city of Northport’s government with respect to its relationship with the public library — a resource he said shows usage at the same density in Northport as it is in the city of Tuscaloosa

“It’s not like they’re not using it,” he said, before pointing out Northport has been leveled out at $50,000 for its annual contribution for years.

That total is compared to $1.84 million from the city of Tuscaloosa (pre-pandemic) and $1.38 million from the county. The county also contributes more than $100,000 from its coal severance tax alone, which is double the amount provided by the city of Northport.

Northport’s share of the library funding also falls well short of the nearly $100,000 raised last year by the Friends of the Library.

“More Northport residents are closer to the library than city residents,” Mayor Walt Maddox said during the meeting. “So it’s as much their library as it is our library as it is the county’s. We need Northport to be funding partners.”

Maddox also underscored the notion that Northport, with its 26,000 residents, is 12.5% of the metro population, but only contributes to 1.5% of the library’s total funding.

“They under-support,” Freeman said. “Especially for how they use the library … I don’t think the Northport government really understands how important the library is to the Northport residents.”

Looking ahead, Maddox said the dynamic could change with offerings just across the bridge from Northport, like The Saban Center — a community partnership of Children’s Hands-On Museum (CHOM), the TPL, the Tuscaloosa Children’s Theatre, and a community black-box theater that will be housed in the Tuscaloosa News building.

“If we’re going to have metro services, we’ve got to have metro buy-in to those services,” Maddox said. “Especially when we face economic constraints like this.”

Freeman did say, though, that in his planning, the hope is that entities such as Tuscaloosa County and the city of Northport will not implement the same 38% funding cut as is being considered by the city of Tuscaloosa.

“It should not be as bleak as this,” he said, contrasting the likely outcome with worst-case projections. “I don’t have numbers from Northport or the county yet, but my expectation is that they won’t be as severe.”

According to Freeman, the county gave a number 25% for its possible funding cut and while Northport could cut as little as 10%.

Despite the drastic reductions across the board, the need for the library’s resources has not only been sustained, but continues to grow during the pandemic.

In 2019, the TPL reported 265,000 checkouts of online resources and more than 500,000 checkouts of print materials.

“The demand is there and the demand is greater than our current budgets allow us to meet and we do a great job getting there, but just understand any cut is going to have some impact,” Freeman said.

In an attempt to shore up the library’s budget, Freeman made mention of the areas that he had direct control over to impact finances moving forward.

“Traditionally, the only real places I have in my budget normally to effect change are the hours of operation, staffing and books and materials budget,” he said. “Most of the rest of our costs are pretty fixed. Insurance stays the same, utilities tend to go up, so the main place I have to make the budget work, it falls to either staff, hours or books.”

Even before the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, staffing changes had been pursued by the TPL, which has cut 11% of its staff since 2016.

Cuts to hours, if a 38% reduction on the library’s funding from its sources is put into place, could see the TPL’s main branch cut 20 hours each week, in addition to 16 hours cut at the Weaver-Bolden branch and 14 hours cut at the Brown branch.

One bright spot, at least for the short-term, can be seen in the library’s reserve funds.

“Part of preparing this budget, we did it with the expectation that this may be a two- to three-year short time,” Freeman said. “So I’ve got an emergency fund that is normally set to cover one [financial] quarter’s worth of support, about $1 million, and we built in about a third of that to this budget to make this work.”

When asked what could help the library system for the upcoming budget, Freeman was blunt in saying a lower funding reduction percentage by the city would go a long way in maintaining services.

“At the 25% cut level, you see most of these things having to happen to make that budget work, if the cut is less than 25%, the general public won’t see it or feel it if it goes above that mark,” he said. “Staff is my single greatest expense, but my single greatest resource.”

This article originally appeared on the Tuscaloosa Patch

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