PORTLAND – City councilors concerned about the planned closure of three branch libraries say they have figured out a way to keep them open as community centers — by giving less money to the city’s library system.

But library officials warn that additional funding cuts could force them to close the two remaining branches, the Peaks Island Branch and the popular Burbank Branch in Deering Center.

The tension between library officials and city councilors illustrates one of the least understood features of the city budget. While Portland taxpayers are funding $3.1 million of the library system’s $3.8 million budget, the system has an independent board of trustees that decides how to spend the money.

Looking ahead to a third consecutive year without a funding increase from the city, that board has decided to close three branches: Munjoy, Reiche and Riverton.

City Councilors John Anton and David Marshall say the three branches are in the cities poorest neighborhoods and serve as “safe community places,” especially for young people and senior citizens. The branches are also located in city-owned buildings.

After the library staff and the books are taken away, the city will still need to provide programs in those facilities, particularly for the young and the elderly, Anton said.

“Young people and senior citizens need places to go, to escape social isolation and have access to materials and a social structure they might not have otherwise,” he said.

Anton and Marshall say they understand the library system’s funding problems.

The city has flat-funded the library system for the past two years, and City Manager Joe Gray has proposed flat-funding it again for the year that starts July 1. At the same time, revenue shortfalls have caused the city to cut its own staffing, programs and services.

As Portland officials look for money to fund programs in the branch libraries, Anton and Marshall say it makes sense to reduce the city’s payments to the library system by the same amount the system would save by closing the branches. Library officials say that closing the branches would save $160,000 a year.

Councilor John Coyne, who serves with Anton on the council’s Finance Committee, said he is disappointed with the decision to close three library branches and is open to Anton and Marshall’s proposal.

But Portland has more branches per capita than any other city in New England and the mid-Atlantic states, said the Portland Public Library system’s executive director, Steve Podgajny.

He said that maintaining five branches is unsustainable and that library officials believe they can be more efficient if they improve the level of service and expand the hours at the main branch, on Congress Street.

Savings from the closures would allow the main branch to be open on Mondays once again, he said. Library officials started closing the main branch on Mondays to save money in the 2008-09 budget.

Podgajny said the closures would also let the library system cover increased costs, such as the 4 percent pay raise in the contract with the union that represents library workers. Last year, the workers’ pay was frozen.

He said the library system can still serve neighborhoods by forming partnerships with other organizations, like the Portland Housing Authority.

Podgajny said he’s frustrated by the councilors’ criticism. He said the branch closures represent the kind of innovative restructuring that city officials have called for but now seem reluctant to accept when it affects their own neighborhoods.

“If we weren’t doing this, we would be subject to people criticizing us for not having a vision,” he said. “It’s almost a can’t-win situation.”

Munjoy Hill has had a branch library since 1958. The branches at Riverton and Reiche were established in the mid-1970s.

The library’s main branch is by far the busiest. Nearly 400,000 items were borrowed from it in 2008-09, the last full year before work began on a recently completed $7.3 million renovation.

Last year, 250,000 items were borrowed from the Burbank Branch, which is the fifth-busiest library in Maine. About 60,000 items were borrowed from the Riverton Branch and 88,000 were borrowed from the Munjoy Branch.

Councilor Jill Duson, who chairs the Finance Committee, said some constituents have asked her why other city departments are in line for cuts while the library stands to get the same amount of money it got last year.

“Compared to everybody else, that’s practically an increase,” she said. 

Staff Writer Tom Bell can be contacted at 791-6369 or at: [email protected]


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