Miami Herald: Patrons adjust to budget cuts at Broward libraries

Dec 15, 2009

The Miami Herald published this story on December 15, 2009

Special to The Miami Herald

Gone are the leisurely Sunday trips to the library that single mother Karen Purdy relished with her 7-year-old daughter, Jessica.

Almost every Sunday, the Dania Beach bookworms used to pluck a few books from the shelves and have fun reading them together before checking out.

Now, they’re lucky to dash into the Stirling Road branch in Hollywood for a few minutes on a Tuesday or Thursday night when the library is open late so they can grab a couple of books for later.

“I hate it now because Sunday was a special time to spend with my daughter in the library,” Purdy said. “Not being able to go on Sunday is a real inconvenience because we’re always rushing now to get in and out.”

Purdy isn’t alone.

Throughout Broward, library patrons and staff members are still reeling from budget cuts for the fiscal year that began Oct. 1 that shuttered libraries on Sundays; slashed the number of free computer classes; reduced library staff at a time of increased use by the public; and left less money available to buy new reference books, magazines and DVDs, among other materials.

The cuts come as most libraries in Broward — from large regional facilities to smaller city-run branches — report about a third more patrons this year compared to last.

“One of the things we’ve all noticed with our budget cuts and the county’s budget cuts is that we’re still seeing anywhere between 30 percent and 35 percent more people coming in now than we did a year ago,” said Richard Sterling, director of the city-run library in Wilton Manors.

So many people are using county libraries that they set a record last year by circulating more than 11 million items, including books, DVDs, compact discs, video games and audio books. That represented an 8 percent increase from 2008.

Big or small, libraries throughout Broward are feeling the crush of people and the pinch of resources. The county has 37 library locations compared to five city-run locales. In addition to Wilton Manors, Lighthouse Point, Oakland Park, Parkland and Plantation also oversee their own libraries.

While some city libraries have expanded their hours and program offerings, don’t expect them to pick up the slack from the county’s budget woes.

“Every library is facing the same problems today. It’s only a matter of degree,” said Doreen Gauthier, director of the Lighthouse Point Library for more than three decades. “My problems are smaller, but they are the same ones that Broward has for its 29 branch libraries.”’

Although Broward is only two months into the new budget year, library officials are already worried about the potential for deeper cuts next year if the county doesn’t collect more property tax revenues to offset losses. They fear the seven county branch libraries that commissioners spared from closing this year may not be so lucky next year. Residents circulated petitions and pleaded their cases to county commissioners at budget hearings this past summer.

They vow to do it all again if they have to.

“Let’s hope it’s not on the chopping block again,” said Linda Eidinger, a supporter of the Galt Ocean Mile library in northeast Fort Lauderdale. She’s ready to fight again but doubts the Galt branch would be a target for closing next year because county commissioners recently approved a new five-year lease for the library.

Besides Galt, the six other branches considered for closing were Century Plaza Library in Deerfield Beach; Beach Branch in Pompano Beach; Hollywood Beach Bernice P. Oster Reading Center; Riverland Library in Fort Lauderdale; Pembroke Pines Library at Walter C. Young Middle School; and the Lauderhill Mall Library.

Those libraries did not close because the county made other cuts that kept them open. It’s the third straight year of budget cuts for the library system, which has lost nearly 30 percent of its budget and almost 300 positions, said Elizabeth Prior, assistant director of the county’s libraries division.

This fiscal year, the county’s 37 libraries share a $59.5 million budget, which is 9 percent less than last year.

To fill some gaps, the county has partnered with the Nova Southeastern University Alvin Sherman Library in Davie to remain open to students and the public on Sundays.

The county also worked out an arrangement with Broward College’s North Campus staff to run the learning lab portion of the library building on campus, which is open to students only on Sundays. It houses various reserve materials for use in-house by students, including videos, DVDs, computer programs and anatomy models.

Since officials slashed funding for library staff to teach computer classes, the county is pursuing grants, volunteers and other measures to provide some form of computer programming to the community, Prior said. As a result, some libraries continue to offer classes, so customers should check with their libraries to see what is available.

“Though we had many initial complaints, the community seems to be adjusting,” Prior said.

But some library users are having a tougher time getting used to the changes.

Take Coral Springs resident Donna Poitevien. She works full time in the legal department of a bank and attends night school at Broward College to become a paralegal. With two kids at home and errands that keep her busy most Saturdays, Poitevien typically set aside Sundays to do legal research homework at her local library.

But she no longer has that option because her library is closed on Sunday and she is finding it hard to squeeze in a trip to the NSU library in Davie.

“It’s forcing me to redo my whole weekend and find time to get these books I need,” she said. “They have a lot of things on the Internet we can use, but sometimes it’s best to have a working knowledge of the legal books they have.”

Coping with smaller operating budgets has librarians ordering fewer books and keeping reference books on the shelves longer, they said. In some cases, library volunteers like the Friends of the Library are holding book sales to replenish supplies.

More people are borrowing books and movies for entertainment and seeking computer and e-mail services for job searches, librarians said.

Customers also may wait in line longer for public computers because more people are canceling Internet service at home to save money.

“It helps me look for subcontracting jobs,” David Wilkinson said of using computers at libraries in Hollywood and Weston. The Dania Beach resident said he recently found construction work in Massachusetts from his online searches. He doesn’t have a computer at home.

Some libraries are limiting computer classes to either advanced or beginners and changing what they offer because they no longer have the staff members with expertise to teach them.

“I think we’re all going to watch closely and see what happens to our libraries this year,” said Ralph Grillone, an 11-year Hollywood beach resident and library supporter who circulated petitions for the Condos of Hollywood Beach to keep the branch library open.

But Grillone is a realist.

“I’ve got a feeling as it gets a little bit closer to next year, we’ll have to get going again to save our libraries.”