Library's never-ending financial woes

Dateline: Tue 06 Apr 2010

"Property tax caps likely to slash budget about 7 percent," is the headline in the Star's story today by reporter Julie Crothers on the financial woes of the Indianapolis-Marion County Public Library. With an operating budget of $40 million -- an incredible sum, it seems to me -- the library's CEO Laura Bramble is making noise about possible closings of branches, staff cuts and program reductions. All these budget issues are directly tied to property tax caps, library board members say.

The truth is, the library is a bit of an anachroism in the Google age, yet many of us have a healthy respect and sometimes nostalgia for libraries. If we knew then what we know now, would we really have constructed the new library Downtown, beautiful and glorious though it is?

A reader of this blog reaised pertiment library questons a week or so ago, the sort that used to plague me when I frequently wrote about the IMCPL during its leadership under two previous CEOs, Linda Mielke and before her Ed Szynaka. Mielke in particular was an architect of dismantliing libraries as we knew them, and one of her many schemes was to quit buying books in the same volume as before, sell many existing collections and emphasize DVDs to bring in patrons. The result was almost wholesale theft of DVDs. Oh, yes, she also forced many librarians out, on the grounds that they were simply no longer needed; patrons, she theorized, could access computers to answer questions.

But under the leadership of Bramble, a longtime IMCPL insider unlike the two previous CEOs, the library seems to be in steadier hands. Still, the core issues remain.

Here's the email from the reader who raises relevant questions about the library's operation. If anyone has the answer, please weigh on...

"One of my favorite unscrutinized agencies is the library. How much money, for instance, is lost due to abuse of materials by patrons for which they are not held responsible? Why doesn't the library resurface DVDs and CDs like Carmel does. They tell me at Carmel that their resurfacing machine has paid for itself many times over. How easy is it to steal materials? (Very) Take books to the self-check machines but don't scan all of them, just put cards in the ones you want to steal and walk out. You don't even need to do that much to steal videos or CDs. How do they establish what fines should be? Why 2 dollars a day for DVDs and 25 cents for books? I bet the per-item cost for books is greater. How much does the library lose each year to theft or non-returns? Do they even try to determine losses? How do they monitor internal theft? And on, and on."

I hate to admit it, but the comparison to Carmel is pertinent. And expect to read more about Indy vs. Carmel in this space int he weeks to come...


Tell The Truth [Member] said:

Yikes. Shoplifitng 101? These lessons I don't need to learn.

The role of libraries in today's society ought to have been better-debated before that downtown boondoggle was built.

I say "boondoggle" not because the building is an eyesore---far from it. It's a handsome addition to the downtown skyline. Its presence re-anchors a once-sliding neighborhood. In that sense, the development was proper.

But there are smart folks out there who argue, that modern libaries ought to be cyberstations (and, thusly, cheaper). In Marion County, an alarming number of folks are cyber-deprived. We can debate whether it's taxpayers' role to cyber-connect everyone at home. But cyberstations in more neighborhoods might be an appropriate role. It could be less construction-intensive, and helpful.

But our Library Board "didn't go there." I tried to discuss it with Louie Mahern when he was president. Louie is a congenial fella, usually very keen on public input. But once he got to the library board he became a lapdog and apologist.

Maybe there's a funk hanging over that library, and it casts a spell on all who govern it. All I know is, i've been to many of their board meetings, and watched many more on Ch. 16. Mary Loue Rothe was the only person who seemed to ask good questions. And they ran her off the board.

In The Star's article this morning, it was clear to me that the current CEO, Miss Bramble, is clueless. She says now's "not the time" to discuss potential budget cuts.

Well when in the hell IS the right time, Miss Bramble? Why not convince that archaic board to hold neighborhood meetings to solicit taxpayer input on where budget priorities ought to be?

I'll allow that my priorities might differ vastly from yours, Ruthie. But this library governance thing is a broken wagon. Good luck trying to get your opinion across.

I'm beginning to think the library board and management took public-input lessons in the same graduate program where school superintendents and Methodist ministers get their fiscal saavy.

In those two holy grails, the perpetrators are never around to pay for the vast construction. Except perhaps as well-heeled second-career architectural "consultants."

What we need in all levels of local government is a stronger set of internal checks and balances to question established spending priorities. All the damned time.

Instead, those of us who do try to question, from inside our out, are labeled "anti- (fill in the blank)." Anti school, library, city, whatever.

We shouldn't govern by plebicite..we do elect or appoint boards and commissions to run these things. But the pendulum has swung so far the other way, that these lapdog boards and commissions are trying too hard to cuyrry favor withi folks who spend money like it's water. Instead of trying to properly fulfill genuine needs.

Here's a hint, Miss Bramble, and to the entire library board: if you can't find 7% waste in that budguet, you all need to quit. Today.

2010-04-06 08:10:40

Duke Young [unverified] said:

The Star article indicated that $1M out of the 30M operating budget was for
"supplies". Is the media budget off line or do the books and dvd's ome out of this along with office and janitorial supplies. My first wake up call about the demise of IMPL was when I learned several years ago that if a book didn't circulate it was withdrawn from the collection. I was aghast but I adjusted and now do my research other places. I
use the internet but will give up on the print media when they pry that last book from my cold dead hands.

2010-04-06 17:46:36

ruthholl [Member] said:

I don't know the answers. I know if you go to Friends of Library sales, you can get some terrific books at bargain prices. I'd love to see how they balance out all the purchases with sales, what the average book's shelf life is, etc.
I know former librarians -- people who retired or were forced out -- did not approve of the previous CEO's tactics, but I thought that Laura Branble had restored a semblence of respect and order. Still, overall, it must be very hard to run a good library in this day and age. Most people don't give a hang about books....which is one reason they've tried to go to DVD rental and even sales.

2010-04-06 20:18:35

nicmart [Member] said:

The library's plight is a good example of what Garrett Hardin labeled "the tragedy of the commons." Nobody owns it, so nobody has an incentive to care for it properly.

2010-04-06 20:58:32

ruthholl [Member] said:

Great title, interesting idea. Thanks. I fear we have a lot of "commons" in urban areas now...blighted sections that nobody owns (foreclosures etc) and are therefore boarded up and left.

2010-04-07 06:06:37

Tell The Truth [Member] said:

Great libraries have been part of advancing civilizations forever.

But maybe libraries today need to re-think and re-tool. I'm not ready to throw them way. But they've been governed by a structure that's alarmingly similar to public schools, or:

Bloated administration. Lapdog presiding board that's enamoured with the CEO. CEOs who forget their ultimate dollar comes from us. Complacent budgets with a Pentagon mentality ("We got X dollars last year, add 4% inflation, move on") You get the drift.

I have attended a few library board meetings with current and immediate-past CEO. I've watched several on Ch. 16. You'd be amazed at the grandstanding by board members.

As for Ms. Bramble, I, too, held high hopes. But if her quote in yesterday's paper is accurate, she's become, I fear, part of the problem.

Because it's always an appropriate time to gauge taxpayers' opinions on your budget and priorities.

The quote wasn't paraphrased, or, as some reporters I know used to say: "it's double lashes" (inside two quotation marks). She needs to engage her brain before she opens her mouth.

I'm going to pay close attention to her and the board over the next few months. I'm hoping she just spoke too quickly, and if so, I'll give her a pass.

Economics and politics have driven me to the library. I used to buy every book I wanted to read. I can't afford to do it any more. Good books are $30-35. Damn.

And I wanted to read Rove and Palin, but I'll be damned if I would give them a dime of my money.

Still, that downtown library is a beautimous thing. Stunning. I remember standing there Election Eve and listening to Barack Obama on a stage, with the library behind him. Stevie Wonder singing. Awesome memory.

2010-04-07 07:55:43

nicmart [Member] said:

I'd happily visit a library in a decrepit warehouse if it held a wide variety of quality books and a helpful staff. I think the library should on stock DVDs and CDs of special merit, featuring rare and important movies and musicians from Indiana. It would be great if libraries charged for materials and guarded them ferociously.

2010-04-07 11:11:28

nicmart [Member] said:

Sorry, meant to type, "the library should only stock DVDs.."

2010-04-07 21:15:59

Ms. Cynical [unverified] said:

As an avid reader, especially of novels, the IMCPL is an essential part of my life (why spend money on a book I'm just gonna read once?).

But, as a researcher, it galls me that they purge unpopular books from their collection -- thereby making them unavailable to me except by interlibrary loan.

There has to be some sort of happy medium to keep us all happy.

Google does NOT answer all of our questions in quite the depth they sometimes need answering!

2010-04-07 23:15:53

Marycatherine Barton [unverified] said:

I was adamantly against the building of a new central library and garage, prefer the old central library, and want more branch libraries to benefit the neighborhoods. Thanks for your attention, smile.

2010-04-08 03:35:42

library trustee [unverified] said:

A few comments from the inside. Ms Bramble's comment about not the time to talk about it comes from the fact that the public meetings start today regarding how the IMCPL will approach the reduced income. The board welcomes comments now that the process has started. Mary Lou Rothe was not "forced off the board" She was an IPS appointee and her term was limited to 16 years. If we could have kept her we would have.
The current library funding issues are about funding operations. The current board is more patron oriented, public service oriented, institutionally driven than any other composition in recent times. We serve as volunteers, take time out of our work day to look out for the public investment. I personally take exception to the comment that the library should charge appropriately. The whole idea of a public library is to preserve access to information. the library is not a bookstore or coffee shop and definitely not a video store. it is a repository for information. The staff is charged with operating within their budgets. The board is charged with making sure the items remain accessible.

The library is taking a serious look at how these goals can be met given current funding. Board members have given many hours sitting in with staff to help guide the process. I feel I speak for every current board member when I say I would give up my seat to anyone who has the magic bullet to solve the problems the library faces.

7% in the current budget gets harder and harder when Wellpoint ups our health insurance costs 17+%. Cuts are harder when water, gas and electricity go up (yes we pay utilities just like every citizen). Reductions are hard when patrons need more computers to file for unemployment. Trimming the budget is a challenge when patrons want the facility to be close to their home, open 24 hours a day and available upon demand. Cuts mean just that, reduction in service, reduction in open hours, reduction in number of facilities, reduction in types of requests honored.

The library is far from perfect but I think many of the snipping comments here are less than insightful. Cuts are going to be made, people are going to be upset. But remember those cuts the next time you think about the vote on property tax caps, Spoiler Alert: there are no magic bullets. Cuts will cut service.

But, I will accept that there are a lot of good things being said here about the library and those things need to be incorporated as we discuss how to re-invent the free public library in today's society. After all the concept of free access to information is one of our founding principles. Jefferson was adamant about libraries. I carry that torch.

I will now put on the flame suit and go back to working for you on the library's problems.

2010-04-08 09:07:34

Tell The Truth [Member] said:

Awwwwww, trustee, how gallant of you to drop in, mea culpa to death, and drop out. Spare me.

I searched the statutes...I could find no 16-year term limit. Please enlighten me if there is one. The public perception is that Mary Lou was shoved out. I don't think she's said a word, because she's every bit a lady. But that is the perception.
She alone on that board had the institutional knowledge to be your conscience. If IPS appointed her, perhaps, if she were willing to stay, another appointing entity could've used one of their slots for her. There have certainly been a fair share of goofs on that board over the last few years...someone could easily have given up a slot for her. My mind instantly wanders to the gentleman, whose name I have forgotten, who gave "construction reports" at prior board meetings. Alas, he loved the sound of his own voice. He fairly brimmed with excitement to hog the agenda. Annoying as hell. Turns out he was duped like the rest of the board.

I understand increased costs. We all face it. And, many of us face decreasing incomes, too.

If you've spent time with staff, that's fine...spend an equal time with your ear to the ground in the community, and mesh the views of staff and patrons. They're all taxpayers.

Mere citizens we...but we see things your director and board members rarely see. From a different perspective. We can provide input. I just wan't aware the input was limited to certain hours and days.

Your overwhelming commitment ought to be, to listen to taxpayer opinions at any hour, any time. Here's a tip: if you do that, you'll build a resevoir of public empathy that you can tap at tough times like this. Now, you have almost none. Ms. Bramble's words via yesterday's newspaper were shockingly errant. I'll accept, via your post, that it's not her predominant attitude. But she needs to learn that individual phrases and words have power, and she ought to choose carefully.

7% is not a large amount to cut. And if Ms. Bramble was misquoted, she's free to clear the record on that front. I missed it in today's paper.

The statues I noted above, provide a public process for all governmental entities' budgets, and it doesn't start tomorrow. (Budget Hearings, legal ads, budget adoption,'s basically a summer process).

But here's the point: I think we're talking about cutting the existing budget. The above paragraph deals with budget hearings for the next calendar year.

And if it's existing budget items you need to cut, there is no "wrong" time to ask for opinion or listen to unsolicited opinion.

I've served on a public board--I got $2000 a year and it worked out to about $.50 an hour. I know your commitment and the hours it takes. It is appreciated. But don't go looking for thanks--it's hard to come by.

You're a better board than you were a few years ago, that's true. But hell that's a limp comparison.

2010-04-08 10:29:03

Library fan [unverified] said:

RE: Trustee terms - to correct the information above--

I contacted a librarian and received the following info about the trustee terms:

Here is the current law, without the 2010 amendment (see below). In practice, 4 terms can be less than 16 years, if the first term (finishing out another trustee's unexpired term) was less than 4 years. It is the number of terms, not the number of years, which determines when a trustee for a library serving more than 3,000 population must leave the board. See below for change in 2010 session.

"IC 36-12-2-8
Limitation on terms of service; consecutive terms; computation; exception for certain library districts
Sec. 8. (a) Except as provided in subsection (b), an appointee to a library board may not serve more than four (4) consecutive terms on the library board. The consecutive terms are computed without regard to a change in the appointing authority that appointed the member or the length of any term served by the appointee. If:
(1) a member's term is interrupted due to the merger of at least two (2) public libraries under IC 36-12-4; and
(2) the member is reappointed to the merged public library board;
the term that was interrupted may not be considered in determining the number of consecutive terms a member may serve on a library board.
(b) This subsection applies to a library board for a library district

having a population of less than three thousand (3,000). If an appointing authority conducts a diligent but unsuccessful search for a qualified individual who wishes to be appointed to serve on the library board:
(1) the appointing authority may reappoint a board member who has served four (4) or more consecutive terms; and
(2) state funds may not be withheld from distribution to the library.
The appointing authority shall file with the library board a written description of the search that was conducted under this subsection. The record becomes a part of the official records of the library board.
As added by P.L.1-2005, SEC.49."

The 2010 amendment is(House bill 1086):

3). A library trustee for a Class I library must sit out four years (one full term) after serving four full terms (16 years). If a trustee was appointed to serve out a partial term and served less than half of that term (less than two years), the partial term will not be counted against the maximum 16 years. The exemption option for library districts with a population of less than 3,000 remains unchanged.

2010-04-12 09:44:33

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