The Rhinelander Library District Board of Trustees has its work cut out for it as it must trim about $17,000 from its proposed 2018 budget. Library officials are in belt-tightening mode following an arbitration hearing in October where the five library district member municipalities - the towns of Newbold, Pelican, Pine Lake, Crescent and the city of Rhinelander - voted to give the library an increase of just under $4,000 rather than the $45,000 increase the library board had requested.
The library asked the member municipalities for an expenditure of $780,188 in 2018, a $45,000 increase over the 2017 budget of $734,144. However, the shares for each of the five district members (see graphic), in most cases, exceeded the levy limits set by the state, triggering arbitration.
After a brief discussion, the district members voted 4-1 Oct. 24 to give the library an increase of just $3,824. This resulted in a final budget of $738,942. However, Oneida County agreed in November to give the library an additional $8,000 and changes to the city's insurance coverage also changed the numbers, leaving the library to make approximately $20,000 in cuts to balance the budget.
The biggest increases
A large portion of the proposed increase from 2017 to 2018 was to fund a 1-percent raise for library employees and increase one part-time position by five hours, which would increase the salary line of the budget from $543,284 to $557,614 or $14,330. The second biggest increase was for health insurance, which went from $126,322 in 2017 to $165,462 in the initial proposed budget.
City finance director Wendi Bixby said the insurance figure was based on a premium increase of 9.3 percent, not the 1.3 percent figure the City Council ultimately approved in the city's final 2018 budget. This put the library's insurance costs at $152,376, resulting in a budget savings of $13,086 from the proposed budget.
The increase for city employee health insurance premiums (library workers are considered city employees) actually decreased by 4 percent for 2018 after the budget was approved. Bixby said the difference between the two percentages builds a cushion into all department budgets so the city doesn't have to go through the complicated process of reopening the approved budget to make the changes.
After subtracting the insurance savings, the shortfall was down to $28,090. The additional $8,000 from the county brought the library's budget gap to approximately $20,000. Library director Virginia Roberts has said the library's goal is to find $17,940 in cuts to bring the final 2018 budget into balance.
A number of options are on the table, including the elimination of some services and programming, and library officials have said they want public input as they make these difficult decisions.
Where to cut
Over a month after the arbitration hearing, Roberts said she and her staff are still coming to grips with their circumstances.
The library board of trustees directed Roberts to post a survey on the library's website querying patrons as to which services they would prefer be eliminated.
"I have met with my staff to see what else we can do," Roberts said in a recent interview. "Because obviously my department heads have ideas, too. There's no fat. I mean there's no fat left, we're losing digits, whole legs if I can't get this funded. Otherwise, it's going to be gone."
While two consecutive years of low budgetary increases is not unheard of, given the levy restrictions facing all municipalities, it is something Roberts said she hasn't had to deal with in her career.
"I have never seen anything like this at the library," Roberts said. "I've obviously done case studies on what to do, but this is not a drill."
Roberts also expressed concern that the community doesn't understand what is at stake.
Some of the cuts being looked at include eliminating Saturday hours or Monday evenings, Thursday morning or Friday afternoon hours. Programs being considered for elimination include children's, adult and young adult programming, along with technology assistance and helping people sent over by Workforce Development with resume writing and computer skills coaching.
Community outreach for children and the elderly are also being considered for elimination, as are having multiple copies of popular book titles, books about a certain subject, movies, music, newspapers, magazines and audiobooks.
Finally, the library may have to limit inter-library loans, add charges for the use of the public meeting room, charge more for or eliminate proctoring exams and in-depth reference assistance and increase the costs for copies, sending/receiving of faxes and scanning, according to Roberts.
"Right now we're having really good discussions with folks that are asking really good questions," Roberts said. "Like why can't you cut your staff, or why can't Oneida County give you more?"
She said the library asked the Oneida County Library Board for a 5 percent increase over what it allocated to the library in 2017.
"Give or take, it's about $8,000," Roberts said. "So it's 5 percent over what we got last year."
Staffing and payroll
Roberts said one question that has been repeatedly raised is why can't the library cut staff.
"We are actually below staffing from 2009 when staffing was (last) cut," she explained. "So we're below that number. And when you cut staffing like that, it has a huge disruption on services and programs that the municipalities and everyone has come to expect, not just require, but expect."
She said the proposed 1 percent pay raise and five additional hours for one part-time employee are being considered for cuts, but the library board will make the final decision on that option. She said the board will be presented with proposals for cuts in "comprehensive bits" and eliminating the raise and the extra hours will be one of those.
"Here's one way we can go, here's another way we can go, there are a whole layer of things that could happen," Roberts said. "In some proposals, yeah, those are gone. In other proposals, at least some of it is preserved, so it is a matter of looking at the whole picture and saying what is best for the staff and the library."
According to Roberts, the library staff is small in comparison to the workload necessary to provide the services and programs the library offers.
"To demoralize them further is not in the best interest of the library," she said. "There are other places these folks could go, believe it or not. It would be a loss for Rhinelander, not just for the library."
Libraries a luxury
Roberts also noted that she starts working on her budget in January and submits it to the board of trustees and the member municipalities in July, well before the city sorts out its insurance coverage, forcing her to use estimates for that part of the budget. From there, it's a waiting game as the various towns and city finalize their budgets.
Of the five district members, Roberts said it is her impression that two of the member municipalties have been trying to slash the library's budget since at least last year. She declined to name them, however.
"That's the sense I get, they would really like to cut us off at the knees," she said.
She later elaborated in an emailed statement.
"There are reasons not to have free libraries - one is to prevent an educated populace. You can certainly look up the movement to prevent funding and necessary expansions of libraries in all parts of the country (and the campaigns behind same)," Roberts said. "Lack of a community library has been known to drive up 'summer slide' in student populations, and frankly can drive up other societal problems as well. People just don't have anywhere else to go for the cost of a public library. Unless you go to a park. Parks are great, I use them myself. But with chilly temperatures eight or nine months of the year, the library may be a warmer place if you're not out in winter gear for winter activity. And in many ways, because of the activity in and around the library all months of the year - it's a very special park - especially in the winter. For many, it's a winter park, where their minds can go anywhere and become or do anything."
Libraries are chronically underfunded nationwide, she added.
"As employees of a cultural institution, there are those power brokers, who expect librarians, like teachers (and reporters) to love what we do so much we'd do it non-stop until it kills us - for free. But just like the very necessary people who staff the library cannot live on photosynthesis, the expectation the library needs less people or no new materials is misplaced," she wrote.
Roberts claims the underfunding has caused some "weird side effects," in how libraries are forced to put their budgets together. Some of those side effects include having to include fines as part of the revenue, rely more and more on grants which aren't always renewed, and have more work done by volunteers which leaves the schedule with frequent shortages. Building repairs are sometimes postponed or cheap alternatives are employed as a stopgap measure to bide time, she added.
All of this leads to a "disconnect between some of those who fund the library - and their stated wish to make this a vibrant, thriving community, attracting qualified, highly skilled workforce/ jobs - and those who use the library - our children (the future of this community), their parents and new residents (the movers and shakers - those who work in the community), and our elders (those who have given everything to our community, or who have moved here seeing the vibrant cultural institutions-one of which is a strongly active and involved library)," she wrote.
Staff becoming advocates
Roberts also noted there are numerous advocacy groups that have started "re-teaching" advocacy to librarians and library directors, many at smaller libraries who don't have degrees in library science.
"They're laypeople who don't had this advocacy piece, they're not coming from government and/or non-profits," Roberts said. "Do they don't know how to defend themselves, and libraries are like so many other things, we're pretty much defenseless, we don't have the bucks to go with it. So where do you cut? You cut the defenseless, you cut the schools, you cut the libraries."
Roberts added "some people see the library as a nice thing to have, but they don't see them as the bedrock of the community."
"But while I know we all use the roads, and we require the protection of police and fire safety among other departments, the library hosts 400 people daily (average), making it the busiest public building in the county folks voluntarily walk into and get more for their money than they put into it," she continued. "Even if a community member never sets foot in the library - because those living or moving to the community come here to find a realtor/housing, start a business/ learn a new skill/ train for a new career/ get a job, or simply check their email; they bring their children or grandchildren to story time; they come here after school to work on projects or do their homework; they come to learn or be entertained at programs; or RDL comes to them, the non-user benefits because of the library user with whom they likely came into contact."
Roberts also noted the resident per capita support for the Rhinelander District Library is the lowest of the three libraries in Oneida County.
Three Lakes is the highest at $95.78, Minocqua is second at $65.71 while Rhinelander receives $40.34.
The board of trustees is scheduled to meet at 2 p.m. Dec. 12 at the library to discuss how to close the budget gap.
Jamie Taylor may be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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