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Library and Parks Departments share budget presentations

Wednesday, August 12, 2009 by Jacob Cottingham

Austin’s libraries and parks, which suffered with deep cuts in both hours and manpower during the last economic slowdown in 2003, report they are holding their own in the current economy, despite some challenges.

 

Brenda Branch, director of Austin’s Public Library system, and Sara Hensley, director of Parks and Recreation provided Council with an update from this year’s budgets last week. Both departments have been working to avoid major budget cuts.

 

Branch told Council members that, so far, libraries have been able to hold off any cut in operation hours. In FY09, Austin Libraries are expecting $600,000 in revenue and expenditures of $24.1 million from the General Budget. That does not include roughly $700,000 in grant funding.

 

Branch informed council that the department was able to maintain service levels, despite 40 vacancies. A new North Village Branch library opened at the end of May and the Twin Oaks Branch should be ready early in 2010. The timeline for a new Central Library is still stretched out to 2014. The Twin Oaks branch is expected to add an additional $134,000 in annual operational costs.

 

In addition to maintaining hours, the library budget also avoids reductions to the book budget and includes funding of $2.2 million for library books, periodicals and electronic databases. Branch said the most common complaint of library users is that the books they were looking for aren’t available. She also presented some numbers on the library system’s usage, which is growing. In FY09, 3.7 million people visited a library, up 7 percent from the previous year. Internet and computer usage at libraries is the fastest growing part of the system’s services, with 1.2 million visitors taking advantage of the 400 internet enabled computers at the libraries, a 17 percent increase.

 

The bulk of the $700,000 in library reductions comes from freezing seven positions, which will net nearly $400,000. The rest will come from $316,000 in operational reductions such as IT support costs, and cataloging and processing services and supplies.

 

Hensley touted her department’s success in reaching out to teens – including an award-winning community arts program and the conversion of the Trail of Lights to more environmentally sustainable LED lights, in partnership with Austin Energy.

 

Hensley then dived into the numbers. The Parks Department is expecting its revenue in FY10 to increase $300,000 over last year’s $3.5 million. Total expenditures, including money from grants and enterprise funds, will total $50.6 million, a $3.5 million reduction from the previous year. However, the amount that PARD spends from the General Fund will increase $700,000, to $36.4 million, up from last year’s $35.7 million. 

 

In order to trim costs by $2.3 million, PARD has proposed letting Anderson Mill maintain and operate its own parks and facilities, which should save $1.3 million. Hensley called it a one-time rescue. “The voters decided to maintain that for themselves,” she said. Charging $5 for the Trail of Lights is expected to net $250,000 in savings – especially if a third party is able to respond to the RFP due August 18. Hensley thinks that a private company may be able to leverage experience and their own creativity to save PARD staff from setting up the trail themselves.

 

The parks director also noted that one of the main challenges – aside from well publicized infrastructure and park maintenance – is the lack of any services sign up online or over the phone. She is eyeing an overhaul of the interactions such as many other cities, and virtually all businesses operate. Hensley said it could be possible to mix and match different techniques used across the country from a library card-like swipe system to buy tickets to Barton Springs before leaving the house.

 

Council Member Randi Shade had some questions about the Park Ranger program, the implementation of which could save a one-time amount of $357,000. Hensley said the Rangers would not be deputized law officers but in some situations would assist the APD task force that covers the parks. The 18 rangers would be able to double as docents or trail tour guides. “They will be out there with eyes and ears,” to watch for dumping, dogs off leashes or other forbidden acts. “We see them as being very visible in facilities and trails so they can help maintain a presence.”

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