When Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel released his first budget plan last month, he said, “A budget is about priorities.” Over the past few weeks, the ensuing process to arrive at a final budget has involved a push-and-pull between aldermen and the mayor, rallies by residents and lobbying by interest groups. Still, it took very little time for Chicagoans and their aldermen to agree on one point: Public libraries are too high a priority to cut them as deeply as Emanuel proposed.
On Friday Emanuel softened on his proposal for the library budget. Instead of cutting nearly $7 million in personnel-filled positions, the city will cut nearly $4 million. That translates to 180 layoffs, rather than 280 layoffs. The total budget for the libraries will still be down by about $8 million from last year, when unfilled vacancies are taken into account. At a recent hearing before City Council, Library Commissioner Mary Dempsey said vacancies account for nearly $5 million of the system’s budget.
Emanuel and Dempsey have suggested that the personnel reduction could be accommodated by cutting eight hours per week from branch libraries while school is in session. Specifically, Dempsey has testified that reducing morning hours on Mondays and Fridays would have "the least impact on residents.”
Frank Morales has already seen such reductions play out — when the city cut the library budget in 2010 — and he says it affected him a lot, for the worse. Morales comes four times a week to the Garfield Ridge library near his home in southwest Chicago. “Last year they used to open at 9, I think, everyday,” said Morales. “But this year they changed. Sometimes they open at 10, sometimes they open at 12.”
Morales, who was off his job as a clothing silkscreener on Halloween Monday, used to go to the library every morning at 9 a.m. before work, because he doesn’t have internet at home.
“For me, it’s better. I don’t have to pay for internet,” he explained.
But when the library changed its hours to open later on most days, Morales had to completely rearrange his work schedule.
“Last year I used to come in the morning to the library. It was perfect,” he said. “I used to go to work, and then after work go to the gym. Which it was perfect.”
Now, Morales switched his hours to work earlier in the mornings, so he can squeeze in some Internet time in the afternoon.
“When I need information about something or anything, I come to the library, and then go to the gym,” he said, “which sometimes, because I need to use the computer I won’t make it to the gym. So I just use the computer and go to my house.”
Chicago librarians say it’s common to see people like Morales waiting outside the branches before they open. Mornings are a popular time for adults to get some quiet time on the computers, read newspapers, and get help from librarians, before schools get out and students start coming in.
But it’s also a popular time with the crowd that’s too young to read or use computers. At the Garfield Ridge branch, Monday mornings are when the library schedules its popular “Time for Tots” storytelling hour. Children’s librarian Patti Tyznik reads a Halloween children’s book as roughly two-dozen toddlers in costume crowd at her feet and on their parents’ laps.
“We love Miss Patty,” said parent Yvonne Umbrasas, who has been bringing her three-year-old daughter every month since early spring. “My daughter has a blast here, and this is one of the things that she looks forward to. She asks to come here every week.”
Umbrasas says free, educational morning programs are nearly impossible to find in Chicago in this economy.
In response to Emanuel’s partial reinstatement of the cuts last week, Library Commissioner Mary Dempsey released a statement saying, “This plan strikes the right balance, insures that all Chicagoans, particularly the children of our city -- have access to library services."
But for people like Umbrasas, that may not be the case. She says if Monday storytime goes away, she anticipates she’ll have to drive to the suburbs for the kind of programming that serves her daughter.
Pritzker Fellow LaCreshia Birts contributed to this report.