SE Library Meeting With City, State Representatives Brings Out Some 80 SouthEnders to Fight Library Closings

When 11 South End city and state representatives showed up at the South End Library on March 24, they faced about 80 constituents with a newly realized passion for libraries, fueled by anger that their branch and others might close. Not that any of the South End representatives endorsed closings. Au contraire. All said they were opposed, and none understood why a $3.6 million shortfall in the $42.2 million BPL budget would cause the mothballing of more than a third of Boston's 26 neighborhood libraries. Representative Byron Rushing, referring to the $1.6 million state cut for FY11, said the BPL's interpretation of priorities by cutting branches "is not proportional."

Executive branch Under Secretary of Administration and Finance,  Matthew Gorzkowicz, agreed that the state reduction to the BPL budget did not need to translate into branch closings, although he said the loss of state revenue, totaling $9 billion in two years, was significant. Plans to save on overlapping services, for example by consolidating the administrative functions of the state's six library regions (Boston, Western Mass., Central, Metro West, Northeast and Southeast), should be completed later this year to still provide regional services, although at a reduced level. And he added that, for the first time since 2005, there is $100 million in library construction bonding authority available in the state.

Senator Sonia Chang-Diaz reported that, in a meeting the previous week between BPL president Amy Ryan and the two dozen members of Boston's state delegation, Ryan was asked to apply state cuts to state services. These include the to-be-consolidated regional library networks and the Library of Last Recourse, a function served by the city of Boston for the entire state."We have to fight for the dollars allocated to branches," said Chang-Diaz. "They should not make up for state deficits."

"This is especially important because these (state) cuts will be temporary," added Rep. Rushing.

Representative Aaron Michlewitz simply stated that he could not support library consolidation. "In tough times we should not be closing neighborhood branches," he said.

South End District Councillors Chuck Turner and Bill Linehan emphatically opposed consolidation, and the "re-imagination of the BPL," under the forced pressure of budget cuts, especially without a considered public debate. "We can't focus now on a new vision for the 21st Century," said Councillor Linehan. "When the Council gets the Mayor's budget on April 14, the library portion will be seen in context of the total budget." He added that last year, for example,  the Council was adamant to spend more for schools."The best thing is for all of us to stay mobilized and show up next month at the Council's Ways and Means hearing."

Councillor Turner reported that, earlier that day, City Council President Mike Ross had called a meeting with city councillors, seven of whom were able to come,  all of whom took the position that neighborhood libraries should not be closed and that reducing services to one or three days a week would be tantamount to closing. The councillors' perspective would be expressed in a letter to Mayor Menino. Councillor Turner emphasized it was important to "push back even before the Mayor's budget is submitted" to the Council. Turner reminded the audience that, last year, the City's reserves were used to pay for additional school funding which, he said, would be "reasonable" to do this year for libraries.

At-large Councillors Felix Arroyo, Ayanna Pressley and John Connolly showed up, as well, with Arroyo, who grew up in the South End, remembering he learned how to read at the South End Library.

Questions from the audience packed into the hot upstairs meeting room ranged from the governance of the BPL by its trustees to what might be the actual cost of closing libraries. "I am appalled at the BPL trustees," said one resident from the Chester Square neighborhood, who described herself as having experience managing municipal budgets. "Three-and-a-half-million in a large city budget is minuscule."  "The trustees are out of synch," said another. "How can we get better and more representative behavior from them?"  A Shawmut Avenue resident. commenting on the idea that electronic library use should make library buildings less necessary, suggested, "the new use in libraries of electronics and digital services should be part of a comprehensive plan,"  adding he did not want to see branches closed. A Rutland Square architect projected the closing cost per library building at $1 million at a minimum.

A 50-year-long resident and former English teacher at the Hurley School asked what could be done. "Make your voices heard," answered Councillor Turner.  "Force the councillors to define their positions. Do the work now. Don't wait. Take the issue off the table before May." Echoed Rep. Rushing: "Demand there be no branch closings. And then we need a grassroots initiative to look at our entire library system."