Thursday, November 29, 2007

Of books, bytes, buildings & budgets

As we approach the turning of the year, we celebrate many things and have just kicked off the holiday season with Thanksgiving. As always, I’m thankful for the community support our library receives. This year that support was manifest in our City budget for next year.

We’re a part of the City of Appleton. Although the financial support provided by our Foundation and Friends group is critical, although the reimbursement from counties and the support of the system are essential, and although the work of our volunteers is indispensable in keeping our heads above water, the City budget is still our fiscal core. A vast majority of our funding comes from City property taxes, so the budget process and decision loom large for us every year.

This year the City Council adopted the Mayor’s proposed budget for the library unchanged, and the Mayor’s budget was very similar to the Library Board’s request. The good news is that we will see a 10% increase in the materials budget after three years of no change. We’ll also be able to address some staff training needs; the training budget had eroded in the past few years and the recently adopted Long Range Plan identified this as a priority. Our increasing volume of business and increasing dependence on technology mandates a well-trained staff.

But the controversial part of the budget was our building study. For the past three years, the Library Board has requested we study our facility needs, but until this year, the Mayor was not ready to support the study, considering all the other facility concerns for the City. The need has grown more pressing as we’ve grown more crowded and the increased use exacerbates some of the difficulties of the current building. We’ve done some “make do” remodeling, but it’s better to address the needs in a serious and systematic way.

Our building is critical. Books and other library materials may be our lifeblood, and our virtual and online services may be increasingly important. But the library is still a place, a place for the whole community. The facility should make everyone feel welcome. It should be efficient to operate and should sustain the library services delivered: not only getting library materials, but doing research, attending programs and meetings and bringing children to story hours. Our current facility is functional, but less so every year and not adequate for the growing library service needs of a growing community. We need to look at some tough questions.

Some of our alderpersons were not ready to support the study. I suspect their reasons were diverse: some may have been concerned about the cost of implementing recommendations; some may have felt the study was too undefined; some may have felt that conclusions are foregone. From where I sit, the study is needed and timely, neither are the conclusions known. And though we had a close vote in including our study in the budget, it is there.

The consultants can help clarify our choices and understand costs, so the Library Board, the Mayor and Council, and ultimately the community, can decide what they want and will pay for. Choices include doing nothing, remodeling or relocating the central library, and whether to build a branch or branches – and if so, where.

Library services and our building may be under the authority of the Library Board, but our building is one of many city facilities. We’re glad that our study is going forward even while our city is looking at other facility needs. We’re also benefiting from the expertise of Dean Gazza, the City of Appleton Facilities Management Director, who had helped draft our Request for Proposals and will work with us on every step. We hope to send out our RFP in January, and then buckle down to do some work taking a good look at our options.

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