Library Advocates Criticize BPL Trustees For Their Lack of Private Fundraising, Call for Any Reductions in Service or Hours to be Applied Equitably Across All Libraries, Including Copley

At last week’s Special Trustees Meeting, BPL president Amy Ryan proposed a FY2012 budget that wasn’t all that bad. That is, compared with the previous two years, when the budget was reduced from $48 million to $40 million. This year, there’s a mere $580,ooo shortfall in a budget of about $39.3 million. Uncertainties can become treacherous, however, for a final budget that is determined by a combination of  city and state contributions, use  and condition of library’s trust funds and, last but not least, the  lackluster performance of the BPL’s private fundraising arm, the BPL Foundation. Mayor Thomas Menino, for example, was reported to have requested a $3.9 million allocation from the state to keep library services at current levels, but Governor Deval Patrick has committed to only $2.4 million. And while the state’s economy (and tax revenue) is on the uptick, the suggested $20 million cut-back in local aid by the governor could force more serious reductions in all city departments, including the BPL, if it is not off-set by health-care savings the governor hopes he can squeeze out of unions’ benefit plans.  The city’s actual contribution to the BPL, moreover, is increasingly taken out of the BPL’s trusts funds, totaling $54 million, further weakening the BPL’s resources, if not its autonomy.

Currently, about six percent of the trust funds pay for BPL operating expenses, instead of library enrichment, a figure that appears to be on an upward slant. For example, the revenue from the $8.6 million Friends of the Kirstein Friends Business Branch Fund, abequest from Thomas Drey which paid for the Kirstein business collection maintenance at the now-closed business branch, and is supposed to do the same for the Kirstein collection since moved to Copley, has been “realligned to support the operating costs” of the BPL, according to the BPL’s Financial Notes accompanying the proposed FY2012 budget. Whether that “realignment” has been limited to the Kirstein collection, or will be used for purposes at Copley not intended by the Fund, was left unstated by the BPL budget papers.

The meeting’s interaction between trustees and audience did show that last year’s cat-and-dog fight between the public library and its patrons may have shifted the grounds under everyone’s feet, perhaps even slightly in favor of the patrons. For the first time, both president Ryan and BPL trustees made repeated references to the need to cooperate with union representatives, city and state elected officials, and library Friends groups. This new-found comfort level  is likely the result, too, of the political savvy of the newest member of the library board, Rep. Byron Rushing, who reminded his board colleagues that it would be a good idea to cooperate with and listen to actual library employees, as well.

In another sign of positive change, library Friends' representatives displayed new-found strength by insisting that all the libraries in the system be treated equitably, both in terms of funds raised for the BPL and in any cutbacks. Weakening or closing some branches in favor of strengthening others is no longer de rigueur in the provinces outside of Copley Square. Chairs from both the Hyde Park and Jamaica Plain Library Friends’ took additional note of the fact that vast differences in service and hours already exist among the BPL’s libraries. “So if for example you have to cut Sunday hours, make sure you do it at all branches evenly, not just at Copley,” said Don Haber, of the Jamaica Plain Friends, tongue in cheek, adding, “Oh..so sorry..I forgot.. none of the other branches have Sunday hours to begin with..”

The lack of private fundraising by BPL trustees was a source of obvious frustration for library patrons at the meeting. Ryan repeated the opinion of the City Attorney that BPL trustees can’t engage in private fundraising since this would present “an ethical conflict.” Somehow the opinion, unvetted by independent counsel,  wasn’t the rule of the land before 2008, when trustees lustily collected many millions for the (yet unfinished) restoration of the Copley Library, with trustees William Bulger and Anthony DiScaccia heading the team.

Ryan’s report that the BPL Foundation had raised $715,000 this year brought scathing testimony during the public-comment session. Maria Rodriguez, of the Faneuil Friends in Brighton, said that the $715,000 raised this year was “not acceptable.”  ”A tiny foundation in my neighborhood with only one employee raised twice as much as you did,” she said.

Bill Taube, a Roslindale resident and professional marketing strategist echoed the sentiment. He accused the trustees of  ”wasting millions of dollars” by not having a gift shop at the BPL and by featuring an on-line web site that was not user-friendly and  ”appeared designed not to raise revenue.” Taube said he had been frustrated enough to write a report on the lack of BPL’s retail acumen, which he said he sent to City Council President Steve Murphy and Taub’s Roslindale District City Councilor, Rob Consalvo.

The only piece of encouraging news on the fundraising front  came from trustee Paul LaCamera, who in previous meetings reported he had met with the development specialists at the MFA, who raised half a billion dollars in the last decade for the MFA’s new wing. The former general manager of the “development machine” called WBUR, LaCamera is heading the BPL search committee looking for a new head of the BPL Foundation. LaCamera, who is keenly interested in, and the force majeure behind building a new library in much-neglected East Boston, reported that “we’re down to four finalists,” to fill that position.