In their March 7 post, Ostrom and O’Regan called for a granular look at the proposed budget, then made a cost-saving proposal of their own. I appreciate the considerable work they have done, respect their intentions, and presume many of their suggestions are worth considering (though I suspect that even taken together, they would not fill the financial gap our city faces). I have a problem with their proposal, however, because they misunderstand how the library is funded.
At one time, the city budget included funding for the library, but those days are gone. Several years, ago, when city budget problems already loomed, the city eliminated funding for the library. Support for the library was replaced by a millage which East Lansing residents approved because, as Ostrom and O’Regan so rightly observe, we “believe strongly in the library.”
Now the city does not provide one cent to the library. In fact, the library pays tens of thousands of dollars annually TO THE CITY, for payroll, IT, janitorial and other services which it is required to obtain from the city because, though not funded by the city, it is still constituted as a department of city government. The library could arguably get these services at a lesser cost through outside contracting or using their own highly talented staff. And they would win that argument.
The only role the city plays in regard to funding the library is to trigger two millages that support it. One is a longtime state millage that residents do not need to vote on but which must be reinstated annually by City Council action. The second millage is the one first approved by residents in November, 2012. It will need to be renewed in 2022 and this requires city action for placement on the ballot. Other library support comes from state dollars, grants, Friends of the East Lansing Public Library (FOELPL), and individual donations.
The city cannot trim its budget by reducing funding to the library because it doesn’t give funds to the library to begin with. And I suggest caution with “cost saving” suggestions, because the library has options the city does not.
The library has a broad and encompassing vision for being a community hub, providing a range of services and opportunities for enrichment. I anticipate the library administration and staff would embrace many of the suggestions Ostrom and O’Regan make for moving some current functions of the city to the library. I simply urge them to sit down with Director Shelley and with the library’s budget. Find out what the transfers would actually cost, what they would entail; learn how a change in one library funding source impacts another; discover the reality of staffing levels; see why and how that police cadet is there; and much more that needs to be understood.
Let’s keep in mind as well that when citizens vote next on a millage to fund the library we will be savvier for the insight we are gaining to the city’s budget travails. We will want to be darned sure it is THE LIBRARY we are voting to spend our money on.
Disclaimer: Taylor has lived in East Lansing for 41 years. She has never served the city in any capacity. The non-profit she directed had a million dollar budget, but she still wonders how she managed it. She’s not entirely sure what granular means. She will admit to being on the FOELPL board and a ballot committee to support the library millage. However, the words and thoughts expressed here are entirely her own.