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February 13, 2013

Southfield library battles through budget struggles

By Jessica Strachan
C & G Staff Writer

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Southfield library battles through budget struggles
Michele Sheldon, of Southfield, browses books at the Southfield Public Library during a book sale last fall. To cut costs, the library projects spending less on new material in the current fiscal year. A 17 percent drop in materials was logged between 2011 and 2012, when hours were reduced.

SOUTHFIELD — The year 2013 marks the 10-year anniversary of the Southfield Public Library’s new building. Despite the celebration, Library Director Dave Ewick is staying focused on the numbers that have come out of the big changes that took effect last fall.

“Our statistics have dropped since 2011. I attribute that, in part, to our reduced hours, which began right as school was starting (in the) fall,” Ewick said about the 30 percent reduction in hours. It was a decision administrators made after declining property values took a toll on the budget. Reducing hours from 66 a week to 44 meant fewer hours for staff members and all-around lower operation costs. 

It means not just operating less, but differently. Ewick said, after the first month, that he’d never seen things so tough in his 23-year career as a librarian.

“It’s never been this bad. As part of this reduction of staff here (due to a reduction of hours), I am now sitting out at the reference desk, working with the public, which I have not done for 10-15 years. It’s been a real eye-opener,” he said, adding that an adjustment like this one has taken some time to get used to for both staff and patrons.

Librarian Kelly Ireland Rembert said that, logistically, things are running smoothly on the inside, but it’s been tough on morale. 

“Nobody, including the library and city staff, (is) happy with the new hours, but most people are understanding about them,” she said. “They appreciate that the library is open some hours instead of having to close down.”

It’s a story not unheard-of.

The Warren Public Library was faced with brief branch closures during the summer of 2010 before a 20-year 0.85-mill tax increase was approved on the August ballot that year. That allowed three of four shuttered branches to open their doors again, and library representatives there say things have, thankfully, been looking up since.

“We passed a millage here in Warren. With the housing market and foreclosures, the tax base for the library has eroded somewhat. However, our services have not been cut,” Oksana Urban, branch librarian supervisor, said. “We were able to even extend our hours. … We are doing quite well.”

Urban, a librarian for 30 years, said they’ve worked on the motto of providing the best service with what they have available.

“History has showed us how this goes. We had lots of staff at first, and then the library fell on hard times. When I was first hired in 1984, we had plenty of staff members that provided services. As the years flowed, we found our budget was eroding rapidly. There were cuts, and positions were not replaced,” she explained. “With the passage of the millage, we were able to hire on branch librarians, library technical assistants and office assistants.”

Since the millage, the Warren library system has seen several improvements to the buildings, in addition to the new hires and longer hours.

“If the economy turns around and housing turns around, we should continue to be in good standing,” Urban added.

Southfield overwhelmingly approved a 4.9183-mill tax increase in May 2011, awarding $1.1 million in funds to the Southfield Public Library and balancing the 2011-12 budget. With revenues down 30 percent from the peak year of 2008, though, Ewick said the numbers still sank for them. Not being able to operate with the $7.84 million budget, they dipped into the $4.8 million fund balance to the tune of $708,270 to compensate for a shortfall in 2012. 

The recent cuts in operation costs projected a savings of $200,000 a year, with another $180,000 expected savings in cuts to supplies, materials, book budgets, contracts with companies and travel expenses. Ewick and the library board still expected another 8 percent drop this year, though he’s now optimistic that the need for cuts will ease up soon.

“If we feel we can still balance our budget and do so, we will add a few hours back to the schedule when possible in 2013.  I do not feel we will add many, but we do want to add them as soon as we can.  It will depend on our revenues and savings in other areas,” Ewick said.

Ewick said success stories of other libraries, like in Warren and Westland, help him envision the possibilities for the Southfield Public Library.

“I can’t look into a crystal ball and tell you what’s going to happen with the library. I hope this (hour reduction) won’t last more than two to three years,” he said. “For now,  I’m connecting with fellow directors and exploring how we can make positive impacts and how to request the best changes (legislatively). I don’t know what’s going to come of it, but so far, I’m leading the effort.”

Ewick said that what all the work comes down to is making sure that the changes are equating to optimal services. He said it’s not just more money that the Southfield Public Library needs — it’s a stable source of money.

“One big challenge coming soon is the need to replace funds which will be lost due to the elimination of the personal property tax. The bill that was passed included a provision to replace the funds, but details must be worked out. If no replacement is made, our library stands to lose at least $200,000 more,” he explained.

Overall, he feels that the behind-the-scene compromises and number crunching have paid off.

“It was not until we reduced our hours that most patrons saw any changes, despite the fact that we’ve been reducing our budget and making many changes to save money for four years,” he said. “As for 2013, we have been in a dark place for a few years now, but we think we see the end of the tunnel. We know that the fiscal crisis is not over, but do believe we have begun coming back.  How fast we can climb remains to be seen.”


Making the most of the library

The library is now open 1-9 p.m. Mondays and Wednesdays, 9:30-5:30 p.m. Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays, and 1-5 p.m. Sundays until May. The library is closed on Fridays.

Though hours have been reduced, the resources available to patrons are greater than ever, library personnel said. The library website offers around-the-clock library services. Patrons can sign up for books, place holds on books or add their name to waiting lists, see what events are coming up and register for classes, pay fines, and secure books not at the Southfield library through the Michigan Electronic Library. Patrons can also download audio and e-books at home, review new books online, and research everything from genealogy to job searches, to school projects, to writing a business plan.

People can also connect with the library through Facebook and Twitter, or via email for support during library hours. The Homework Alert allows families to see what their children have due the next day from teachers who upload assignments.

Books may be returned at the 24-hour drive-through drop box at the library.

Ways to help

People can join the Friends of the Southfield Public Library at www.southfieldlibrary.org/friends.html. The group of library supporters works to enhance the services the Library is able to provide.

Patrons can donate funds to plate a book in honor or in memory of a loved one.  Funds go toward purchasing new materials for the library.  Find out more at www.southfieldlibrary.org/bookplate.

People can also sponsor a favorite library program.  Visit www.southfieldlibrary.org/sponsorship for details.

Donate your gently used books to the Friends of the Southfield Public Library.

Make a tax-deductible contribution to the Southfield Public Library.

Help library staff decrease wait times at the circulation desk by having your library card ready, bringing back your materials on time or even early, renewing items online and signing up for email notifications.

For more information on the Southfield Public Library, visit www.southfieldlibrary.org or call (248) 796-4200.

You can reach C & G Staff Writer Jessica Strachan at jstrachan@candgnews.com or at (586)279-1108.