Woodland Public Library Trustees are presently grappling with their portion of a suddenly ubiquitous budget bind, created by the latest bursting of an economic (housing) bubble amidst a swiftly accelerating recessionary plummet that some folks have likened to legendary financial calamities of the 1930s.


Just a few months ago, library trustees were eagerly discussing strategies for finally developing and utilizing 2000 square feet of urgently needed library space — somehow left vacant for the previous 20 years.


But these days, that project is off the agenda and back on the shelf, while trustees are suddenly swept into a struggle to simply maintain the status quo upon a slippery slope of rapidly diminishing revenue.


____ Municipal Hiring-Freeze & Structural Budget Problems ____


City Manager Mark Deven has imposed a municipal hiring-freeze which, as of November 1, has resulted in 42 unfilled employment vacancies within a city staff totaling 375.


As of yet, there have been no employee layoffs. However, Deven has indicated that during previous years, serious “structural deficits” have emerged within the city budget. In other words, the city’s budgetary problems are recognized to be chronic, revealed by — but only partially due to — currently adverse economic conditions.


Deven reported to the city council on October 28, that $2.5 million per year in further budget cuts are expected to begin in the 2009-10 fiscal year, until these structural problems in the city’s budget are resolved.


____ Library Impacts & Strategies ____


Because of its smaller staff and higher retention rate, the library has not yet been exposed to this moratorium on new hiring. But in 2009, 25% of its permanent staff will retire, catapulting the library from least affected — to most affected — among city departments.


Relief from that impending predicament — causing a substantial cutback in library hours — was the subject of a cordial but frank conversation with Deven during the library trustees’ meeting of November 17.


Deven explained that until late December he wouldn’t have enough fiscal information to describe precise details of the city’s worsening budgetary circumstances. Additionally, Deven clarified his goal of preserving basic options for council action during 2009, announcing that he has refused a recent fire-department request to fill 3 vacant positions.


Trustees were looking for some tentative, potential strategies for best coping with whatever occurs. Deven portrayed the management role of ensuring municipal solvency and best identifying and prioritizing budgetary options for council action during 2009; yet, he informally approved one general avenue of address for the trustees.


____ Citywide Personnel Vacancies Are Expanding ____


Personnel vacancies now range from 8% in the police department to 19% in the parks & recreation department. Deven implied that he anticipated initial level-of-service (LOS) reductions would soon occur within parks & recreation, by noting that he recently invited relevant staff to develop proposals for such LOS reductions.


The fire department has 11 vacancies, 11.3% of its regular staff of 62; while, the public works department is short 9 employees on a staff of 85, a rate of 10.58%. The community development department is absent 8 employees out of 54, a rate of 14.8%.


It’s difficult to believe that marginal levels of LOS reductions aren’t already occurring within certain areas of municipal operations, based on these vacancy rates. The first recognized LOS reductions, though are likely to begin with the parks and recreation staff being down by 8 of its 42 employees (19%). Police staffing, at the other end of this spectrum, is short 8 officers out a total force of 99 (8%). City staff vacancies are generally emerging along some public-safety favored orientation.


The library’s staff being by far the smallest, at 12, 11 of which are paid from the General Fund (the next smallest department is finance, with 21 staff and a 9.5% vacancy rate), planned retirement of 3 long-time and key, library personnel will suddenly jeopardize basic library services and hours of operation — just as library use is broadly and dramatically increasing — partially due to expanding economic distress.


____ Potential Reduction in Library Hours ____


Unless some form of relief is discovered, from this moratorium on city hiring, library director Sandra Briggs indicates that during 2009 the library’s employee vacancy rate will gradually rise by attrition to 27.3%, becoming by far the most crippled city department.


“[I]f upcoming vacancies are unfilled, reductions in service hours will be necessary,” reads Briggs’ report to the trustees.


In February, 2009, Helen Marquez will retire after 30 years with the library; while, April brings Carol Beckham’s retirement after 26 years of service. In November, Rita Cocke will retire after 30 years with the library. Between these 3 upper-management, employee vacancies, the library will lose an enormous amount of its institutional experience and capabilities — even if their positions were to be immediately filled.


During adverse economic times, noted various trustees, persons turn to the library for diversely important support. Briggs noted an increase in employment-related activities, among other surging categories of library patronage. Outreach to elementary schools has recently succeeded in rapidly producing huge elevations of library use. No-cost entertainment options are provided to community members by the library, when buying books, periodicals and movies becomes unaffordable.


Its trustees perceive a very significant nature of innovatively leveraged community value associated with the library — compared with its small fiscal component (cost) for the city — only 1.9% of the citywide budget.


At one point in the meeting, Briggs asked Deven if adverse budgetary impacts to the library might be contained to the proportion of city revenue which it actually represents (1.9%). Deven declined to offer such an assurance, generally espousing a “we’re all in this together” sentiment, regarding basic LOS challenges arising among all municipal departments.


____ Library Director’s Report to Trustees ____


Briggs’ report states that the library has already lost a full-time, general-fund based employee position during the 2007-08 fiscal year. Plus, future expenditures on library materials (the “primary infrastructure of a library”) will be reduced about 20% by currently approved and proposed budget cuts. Briggs warns that “Gaps [in materials acquisition] resulting from budget cuts are rarely corrected.”


Another approaching peril exists, according to Briggs’ report, in potential exhaustion by 2010 of a special financial reserve account, which has historically supplied the largest funding component in acquisition of library materials. This account would become totally depleted because of having to manage reasonable materials acquisition efforts under circumstances of substantial revenue shortfalls from other sources.


Briggs’ report details how the Woodland Friends of the Library has strongly supported library facilities, materials, furnishings — and most recently purchased a new water-softener for the library, with relevant contributions totally $25,000 — expenses that might have otherwise been taken from the General Fund.


Outlined with this report are updates on existing strategies to improve economy and efficiency within library operations. Newly improved self-check-out equipment — due to be installed by December — will reduce staff time and effort in circulation; while, increasing use of vendor-based, pre-processing of library materials will streamline public access and diminish labor-intensive staff expenses.


On November 5, “all permanent staff met [  ] to review the budgetary challenges and brainstorm alternatives [  ] and determin[e] staff priorities,” describes Briggs’ report to the trustees. Various ideas and priorities are noted, including reducing daily hours of operation rather than days of operation, contracting library materials pre-processing to a vendor, and automations of telephone answering and facilities scheduling.


Deven congratulated the trustees regarding their existing, pro-active programs of cost-reduction, but said he wasn’t able to advocate for sparing the library from its regular share of the citywide budgetary burden, emphasizing that he wants to treat each department in a fair and equitable fashion.


Of course, the city council’s responsibility is to determine specific contours of the ultimate priorities for application of municipal resources. It’s a policymaking, political decision.


____ A Possible But Limited Strategy ____


What Deven did, however, was to informally and tentatively approve a strategy, presented by the trustees, to internally fill the most critical library management vacancy arising in 2009, then attempt to fill that newly created vacancy — lower in the management tier — by targeted funding of temporary, part-time positions.


“As long as you still have the same number of vacancies,” he said, the trustees could shift a present employee into the most critical management position — unless, of course, budgetary matters become so dire in December, that such a preferred course is somehow infeasible.


Deven added that last note, just to emphasize the gravity and uncertainty of this economic crisis. He also mentioned cost-of-living (COLA) adjustments to employee salaries. He said they weren’t being reduced yet; but, seemingly raised these employee benefits as arriving on the chopping table at some point.


While internally promoting an employee may be an option for replacement of the most critical of three looming vacancies of key, permanent staff; it is difficult to understand how library hours will remain as they are throughout the 2009-10 fiscal year.


Reductions in library LOS seem certain to occur, without specific budget adjustment by the city council.


Other recent, adverse impacts to the library, stemming from the economic downturn, are proposed suspension of collection of Springlake development fees for various projects, including the planned library expansion (10,000 sq. ft. ~ 2012), as well as reducing by nearly a third library collection development funds (materials acquisition component), down from $85,000 to $55,000 annually.


____ Token of Understanding ____


Deven has advanced a token of his genuine understanding and appreciation of the pivotal role of libraries, in the form of alerting the trustees to the possibility of applying for a grant of between $20,000 and $60,000 (depending on particular situation), from a professional association of which he is a member, the International City / County Management Association (ICMA).


This grant material describes that: “Public libraries can play a dynamic role in communities. Once an institution devoted to book circulation, today’s libraries provide citizens and businesses with internet connectivity, career development, childhood literacy, immigration assistance, and other important services. But many libraries across the country are struggling to maximize their potential and evolve to meet the challenges of the 21st century. Increased support from their city or county administrator is needed. ICMA Public Library Innovation Grants, made possible through a partnership with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, are available to local governments that develop innovative ways to actively engage their public libraries in meeting specific community goals.”


The trustees formed a subcommittee to consider formulating an application for this ICMA grant; while, at the same time discussing deployment of their advocacy skills on city council members, in an effort to best protect library LOS from the citywide budget crisis.