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Menino still looks to close libraries

Boost for branches to run out by July

By Andrew Ryan
Globe Staff / January 11, 2011

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Opponents of a plan to close four of Boston’s libraries scored a significant victory last week when the state allocated extra money to keep the branches open.

But that sense of triumph may be fleeting. The $350,000 from the state is a one-time fix that keeps the buildings open only an additional three months until the fiscal year ends June 30. After that, new money will be hard to find in a difficult budget year, and Mayor Thomas M. Menino says libraries could once again be on the chopping block.

“I believe we have too many branch libraries,’’ Menino, who will deliver his annual State of the City address this evening at Faneuil Hall, said in a recent interview. “As a politician I shouldn’t say that because it makes people mad. But if we really want to be honest with ourselves and the public you have to say that.’’

Menino did not identify specific libraries he would target or outline a plan to financially stabilize the nation’s oldest municipally funded library system. But he made clear that he believed his administration was right last year to try to close four neighborhood branches, a cost- savings plan that was later postponed after intense neighborhood and political pressure.

“I understand that people are attached to libraries. But I’m attached to making city services work,’’ Menino said. “As mayor, as leader of the city, I just can’t be caught playing the game of, ‘Oh it means so much to me.’ I have to be realistic about this. That’s what the public is looking for now.’’

The mayor is not expected to focus on the library issue in tonight’s speech.

“I’m surprised that Menino thinks there are still expendable libraries,’’ said Maria Rodrigues, a Brighton resident who spearheaded the campaign to save the Faneuil library branch in Oak Square. “The public as a whole made very clear that libraries are vital anchors in this urban hub that is Boston. They play a function beyond lending books.’’

In April, the Boston Public Library’s board of trustees approved a budget that would have closed Faneuil and three more of the city’s 27 locations by late summer or fall: Lower Mills in Dorchester, Orient Heights in East Boston, and Washington Village in South Boston’s Old Colony housing development.

After months of neighborhood outcry and pressure from Boston’s delegation on Beacon Hill, the city added an additional $654,000 to the library’s budget, enough to keep the branches open until April. The extra $350,000 from the state last week will give the four branches three more months and prevent 21 layoffs, library officials said. Last year, the library laid off 31 employees.

Financial officials at the library have begun building revenue projections and operating cost forecasts but have not yet drafted a comprehensive budget proposal, said Amy E. Ryan, president of the Boston Public Library.

“I think we know there are going to be fewer resources, but we don’t know the exact numbers yet,’’ Ryan said. Reductions could target “collections, hours, or branches closures,’’ she said.

A preliminary financial assessment will be presented to the trustees at their meeting on Jan 18. Despite the bleak outlook, Ryan described “a renewed sense of optimism’’ about the coming fiscal year, in part because of a significantly better relationship with state lawmakers.

The city has always provided much of the library’s operating budget, but the state also contributed a substantial chunk. Two years ago, it covered more than 18 percent of costs. But then, steep cuts on Beacon Hill slashed the state’s contribution from $8.9 million in 2009 to $2.4 million this year.

With the looming library closures, state and city officials clashed at public meetings. Beacon Hill lawmakers ultimately passed a punitive measure that would have stripped the library of its remaining $2.4 million in state funding if it shuttered a single branch.

“Last year we had to use what leverage we had on behalf of our constituents,’’ said Representative Linda Dorcena Forry, a Democrat from Dorchester. “We’ve turned a new page. We’re working together.’’

Part of that evolution came when Menino appointed state Representative Byron Rushing to be a library trustee after Rushing accused the board of doing a bad job lobbying. Other lawmakers have made amends with city officials and spent more time with Ryan, who moved from Minnesota when she took over as library president in 2008.

“We are not in la-la land,’’ said Dorcena Forry, who like Ryan expressed optimism about the coming year. “We know it’s going to be a tough budget cycle . . . but I would hope there are no closure proposals.’’

Andrew Ryan can be reached at acryan@globe.com.