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Library budget talks reveal Council divide

Thursday, May 28, 2015 by Elizabeth Pagano

Last week, City Council dug into the Library Department’s budget, and it became clear that there are some deep ideological divides on the dais.

As part of their budget work session, Council members grilled Austin Public Library Director Brenda Branch about the city’s public libraries. Last year, construction costs for the Central Library went over budget, reaching $120 million. This year, Council members scrutinized the projected staffing costs for the new facility.

The Central Library is set to open in November 2016, and Branch explained that after having “scrubbed the numbers twice,” she was asking for exactly what she needed to use the new building to capacity. This year, her department is asking for 48 new positions, which will cost the city $2.3 million.

To make it easier, Branch plans to phase in staffing over three years – 48 positions this year, 11 next year and nine the third year. The new library will have a total staff of 190.

Council Member Don Zimmerman said he hardly knew where to start, but he did anyway. He said that library attendance was declining and held up his own smartphone, declaring it the real “library of the future.”

“I was a hardcore opponent of this library. It’s a pretty offensive and almost obscene gesture of excess,” said Zimmerman. He explained that his regional District 6 office sees visitors who vow never to go downtown, and though they therefore will never set foot in the library, they are being forced to pay taxes for it.

“I just see some tone-deafness in this exorbitantly expensive new library from city government. … And I’ll do everything I can to try to control some of these really outrageous costs,” said Zimmerman.

On the other hand, Council Member Leslie Pool said she will be working to find more funding for community assets like libraries as well as pools and parks.

Pool said she wants to keep branch libraries open on Sunday and hopes to return to or surpass pre-Great Recession levels of funding.

“We don’t have an economic downturn now, and I think it is a really good time for us to re-evaluate our treatment of the libraries,” said Pool.

Mayor Steve Adler, fresh from a visit to the Seattle Central Library, took a moment to describe the “spectacular experience” he had there and the services the library offered. He noted that the Seattle library was not like the libraries of his youth. Rather, it was a vibrant community space that offered education, meeting spaces and other amenities that are planned for Austin’s Central Library as well.

Branch said she did not submit a request for additional staff at any of the other libraries this year because she thought “48 positions was enough to ask for.”

Photo courtesy of the city of Austin.

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