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Dallas' Libraries, Among the Nation's Worst Funded, May Actually Get Some More Money

The substantially underfunded Dallas Public Libraries are in desperate need of overhaul, including increased hours of operation and community programs.
The substantially underfunded Dallas Public Libraries are in desperate need of overhaul, including increased hours of operation and community programs.

On Wednesday, book lovers from across the city showed up in force at the Dallas City Council meeting. It was the first time council members were able to throw amendments at the proposed city budget for the next fiscal year. And supporters of Dallas Public Libraries wanted them to carefully consider the library budget in their decision-making.

After half a decade of budget cuts, Dallas' library system has some of the most limited operation hours of any city library system in the country. It catching up to do if it is to restore competitive hours -- that is, more than 40 hours per week -- and standard facility operations. This last fiscal year, the City of Dallas spent $18.29 per person on its libraries. Houston spent $18.26. Houston's is the worst funded library system in the country. Dallas' is the second-worst.

Before the 2008 recession, the city approved a budget of $32 million for city libraries. Last year, with slashed hours and substantial staff cuts, the city allotted $22 million. "The City does not fund any programming, anything extra. All of that is funded through private funding," says Karen Blumenthal, a local journalist and author who's on the board of the Friends of Dallas Public Libraries. "We need things like copiers and scanners and classes. Right now things like construction paper for the preschool story groups are privately funded."

In budget planning for this fiscal year, the Dallas City Council agreed to add an additional $3 million to the library budget this year, with plans to add an additional $3 million to the budget the next year. That should satisfy some major hour and staff needs.

But advocates like Blumenthal, herself a frequent visitor to her Lake Highlands branch, say that's not enough. "Our push has been to say to the city, the library budget needs $10 million. So we have two issues, one is the hours, and to open the doors is about 6 million. But then the other is $4 million needed for basic stuff, like classes, technology, and outreach to the community."

It's a problem some city council members are eager to rally behind. Councilman Scott Griggs jumpstarted the meeting by suggesting a 15 percent cut to the city manager's budget, which could free up an additional $3 million to be put toward the library budget.

That would mean that the proposed staff hirings and extended hours could happen all at once this fiscal year, instead of spreading out the change over two years. As it is, the current proposed library budget sits at a little over $25 million. Griggs' proposal would bring the budget to a more robust $28 million for staff hirings.

While Griggs' eagerness is applaudable, Director of Libraries Mary Jo Giudice reined it in. She cautioned that while adding 50 to 100 new employees was a necessary initiative, in a practical sense it would be impossible to hire and train that many staffers by the beginning of the fiscal year on October 1.

"We're going to have to phase this in. Phasing it in makes more sense. It's not that we don't want the money, it's just that realistically you need more time," says Blumenthal. "To do this you can't make it happen with the snap of a finger. It takes time to do these things."

It's well-known within library circles across the country that Dallas libraries are in poor condition. And with a notoriously high turnover rate, it's increasingly difficult to recruit good, permanent staffers.

Still, the city is improving from the paltry $18 million budget for the 2011-2012 fiscal year. "It's not an issue of money, it's an issue of priorities. And they send a very bad message," says Blumenthal. "They've got a reputation to repair as well."


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