Philadelphians Resist Free Library Branch Closings
On November 8, 2008, four days after the election of Barack Obama, first year Mayor Michael Nutter of Philadelphia announced the closings of 11 branch libraries as part of an attempt to balance the city budget in face of declining revenues.
Mayor Nutter has been met with determined resistance from the city wide Friends of the Free Library, led by executive director Amy Dougherty, and the Friends of the Free Library groups at each of the 11 branch libraries and at most branch libraries around the city.
While the Friends of the Free Library have made clear their strong preference was for no library cuts at all, they have announced that they would favor reduction of hours at all libraries as against shutting some down.
As a state legislator in whose district two of the eleven libraries shut down are located, I have been an active public spokesperson against the library closings.
One of the libraries to be shut down, the David Cohen Ogontz Library, is named for my late father, the longest serving Philadelphia Councilman at Large in the city's history. It is named for him because of his passionate activism for its creation over a thirty-five year period spanning six mayoral administrations.
At first, Mayor Nutter announced that the library shut down would save the city $8 million a year, and the the libraries would be sold to generate additional revenues. But word has gradually leaked out that only have about half the $8 million reduction in library costs are due to the closure of the branch libraries, with the other half being for reductions in other library services. The cost of the 11 branch libraries is now estimated at only $3.5 million to $4.5 million a year.
Nutter's plan to sell the libraries has quietly died. Sale of the libraries and other city capital assets requires the approval of city council under the Philadelphia City Charter, and it is quite clear that public pressure has prevented City Council from agreeing to any library sales.
Closing the branch libraries down is also legally dubious. On December 1, 1988, over the veto of Mayor W. Wilson Goode, Sr., the Philadelphia City Council passed an ordinance entitled "Closing or Abandonment of Any City-Owned Capital Facility." The ordinance said that "no city owned capital facility shall be closed, abandoned or allowed to go into disuse without specific approval therefore from city council, by ordinance."
Mayor Nutter is now trying to get around this ordinance by suggesting that library buildings will be used for other city governmental purposes. My sense is that this would be the prohibited "allowed to go into disuse," but ultimately this may be resolved by the courts if Nutter does not keep the libraries open for the purposes for which they were attended.
Other legal issues surrounding "Closing or Abandonment of Any City-Owned Capital Facility" ordinance include the legal authority, if any, of a 1988 opinion of the then City Solicitor saying it violated the city charter, and the legal authority, if any, of a Common Pleas Court decision agreeing with the City Solicitor but later overruled by Pennsylvania's appellate Commonwealth Court.
As an attorney as well as a state legislative leader myself, I am confident that the key legal fact for the Nutter Administration is that the ordinance has a presumption of full legality under it is overruled by the highest court to rule on it. The Commonwealth Court is higher than the Common Please Court, and its decision makes the Common Pleas Court opinion of no legal weight.
Other important fiscal choices facing the Nutter Administration include whether or not to count any revenue from the Obama Administration and Congress in the budget; the Nutter Administration is declining to do so until they know precisely how much they will get. This seems to be conservative budgeting run amuck: it is clear that the public concern about bailouts for billionaires and millionaires guarantees they they get something, and they should be assuming something in their budgeting efforts.
Another fiscal issue facing Philadelphia is its appetite for starting new programs, even in tight times. The Pennsylvania Intergovernmental Cooperation Authority, a state watchdog authority over city finances that I and others actively worked to create, warned that the proposed city 311 system is one of the nine major threats to city solvency over the next five years with potentially open-ended costs.
Nevertheless, the 311 system is scheduled to start around January 1, 2009, about the same time the branch libraries are due to be shut down. To add insult to injury, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who helped sell Mayor Nutter on the 311 system, recently released a comprehensive survey of New Yorkers which showed that his 311 system was only a limited tool: only 41% of New Yorkers recalled using it in the past 12 months, only 48% of them, or 20% of the New Yorkers polled, said it helped them with their problems.
I spoke yesterday at a rally before roughly 300 people at Philadelphia's Central Library, at 19th and Vine Streets, which, ironically, is in the midst of a $180 million expansion program. My concluding remarks were as follows:
THE FACTS ARE ON OUR SIDE. Branch libraries should be the the last thing to be eliminated, not the first thing to be eliminated. They help responsible people of all generations, all neighborhoods, all social classes, make responsible decisions about their future. They give students a gateway to opportunity, and they give senior citizens and other people who may be isolated a place to gather and recharge their batteries and their friendships.
In all my life, I have never heard of any neighborhood anywhere opposing a library serving them. I have never once heard any person saying he or she was afraid of kids coming out of libraries, or that kids coming out of libraries made a nuisance of themselves. I have never once heard of a person saying HIS or HER OWN branch library should be shut down.
JUSTICE IS ON OUR SIDE. WE WILL PREVAIL. With your continued help, with your continued passion, with your continued lobbying with the Mayor and City Council, there is no way that we can lose.