The Prendergast Library Needs To Ask Questions
The James Prendergast Library needs a new plan.
Trying to restore large amounts of city funding simply isn’t possible. The city’s $3.4 million surplus is, at best, a short-term solution as the likely costs associated with contracts for police officers and firefighters hit the books. Police officers have raises of about $880,000 pending, with firefighters likely to receive a similar amount once their arbitration process eventually ends. Those lump sum payments will take about half of the city’s surplus.
That isn’t stopping at least one mayoral candidate from publicly stating early last week that he favors restoring funding to the library. David Wilfong, the Republican candidate for mayor, told the Jamestown Noon Rotary Club in response to a question from Tina Scott, library executive director, that he will restore funding to the library if elected, though he didn’t stipulate how much of the library’s funding he would restore. At a candidate forum Tuesday at Jamestown Community College, Eddie Sundquist, Democratic candidate for mayor, said the city needs to help the library find broader sources of funding while Andrew Liuzzo, Libertarian Party candidate for mayor, said both the city and the library need to do more to restore the library to more solid financial footing.
Creating a library taxing district under the state’s Education Law failed a few years ago. Jamestown residents already pay the highest taxes in the county, so such a taxing district would have to be approached carefully.
The library’s possible closure in as few as three or four years evokes a visceral response, particularly among those who use its services or who feel strongly about literacy and the availability of information. It is easy to criticize the board for spending too much on salaries or not fundraising enough, but the library’s IRS Form 990 filings with the IRS show that fundraising income has increased by $25,460 from 2015 through 2017, the last year for which a Form 990 is available for the library. The costs of salaries, pension plan contributions, other benefits and payroll taxes has decreased by $241,776 over the same three-year period. The library hasn’t yet cut spending on materials, spending between $31,720 and $32,033 from 2015 to 2017.
Three things, then, seem to be fact. Jamestown’s city government will not be able to afford restoring city funding to its long-budgeted $350,000 a year. Unless the community has a massive change of heart, forming a taxing district to provide local funding for the library is unlikely to happen. And, library board members have already worked to increase fundraising income and taken steps to cut staff-related expenses, with the library still struggling financially.
What avenues are available to keep the library in existence, then?
One avenue is passage of state legislation decoupling a library’s state aid from a municipality’s contribution to the library. Some of the issues that constrained Jamestown’s city budget revenue streams were actions by state government or state agencies. The way the city charter is structured regarding the Board of Public Utilities ended up being a driving factor in the city losing about $500,000 a year in state aid. The state’s chosen method to plug that gap was to have the city request dividend payments from the BPU. A sluggish local economy and changes to how the BPU budgets proceeds from off-system sales removed the ability for the BPU to afford dividend payments to the city. Factor in, too, state-mandated increases in state retirement system contributions and state-imposed contract settlements, and one can make the case that without the state’s actions, Jamestown would not have been forced to cut its funding to the James Prendergast Library.
Another avenue is to chart a new future for the James Prendergast Library. What should a library be doing in 2020 and beyond? In 2016 and 2017, library officials worked on a strategic plan to guide the library’s decision making from 2017 through 2020. One of the three main areas of that plan was to develop a plan for a sustainable future, including scenarios that included receiving no support from the city of Jamestown. Add to that no support from the state. What does the Prendergast Library look like if it is not housed in its familiar Spring Street home? Are there partnerships with other libraries in the city that might make such a large building unnecessary? Are there places that could house existing library programs where even more people could use them? For example, the library often touts its Makerspace. Is there a home for that space where more children could use it while not tying up library resources? These are the types of difficult questions that the library board and the community must ask.
The time to start asking those questions is now. The Prendergast Library board is hosting community presentations at 3:30 p.m. Wednesday and 6:30 p.m. Thursday. Now is not the time for finger pointing or grandstanding. It’s the time for real discussions of possible solutions to the library’s financial problems.