The La Crosse Library Board issued a statement this morning announcing it was permanently laying off 15 staff as a result of the city cutting its funding by $525,000, a huge hit considering the library’s entire budget is $5.1 million.
The city’s $11.7 million police budget, however, is only facing a cutback of $100,000, or 0.8%, compared to the over 10% reduction in funding for the library.
“When facing shortfalls of this measure, we have little recourse but to eliminate positions, 15 of our Librarians, Associates, Assistants and support staff are being permanently laid off, three open positions will remain unfilled while those remaining face long term and intermittent furloughs,” the statement from the library board said.
The library is not the only city department that is being disproportionately cut compared to the police department. Parks and Recreation will see a $500,000 cut out of a 2020 budget of just $3.4 million.
The scale of cutbacks for the different departments was decided by the city’s Executive Budget Team, which was made up of city staff selected by Mayor Tim Kabat. That team then brought its recommendations to the common council on May 28 where they were unanimously approved by the council.
Council member Jessica Olson said delegating the heavy lifting on where the axe should fall to the Executive Budget Team did reduce public scrutiny of the decision-making process.
“I’m not going to lie, that was the part of the purpose of the staff of taking that role,” she told The La Crosse Independent. “I believe it was also to shield the mayor from facing excessive political pressure.”
Olson said that while it was difficult to see the pain the cutbacks to the library were causing, she does think the decision to spare the police department from serious reductions in funding was correct.
“If i support a cutback, and then an officer doesn’t get to a hostage scene or something like that, and someone dies, as a public official you have to wonder to what degree am I culpable?,” she said.
Olson acknowledged the rising tide of criticism against police sparked by the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer, which has led to calls across the country to defund police departments completely. But she said police deal with “a lot of issues not related to race, but they are related to safety” such as carjackings, kidnapping and domestic violence. While she has received calls from constituents asking to defund the police, Olson also said a constituent called recently to tell her about neighbors who were “always out of their minds on meth” and wanted the police to help.
She also said that police in La Crosse were working with federal agencies “to bring down high level drug dealers,” which was among the reasons why she thought a substantial reduction in police funding was not a good idea, meaning other departments would have to take a bigger hit.
Funding to the police department has increased by 7.6% since 2017, from about $10.8 million to the $11.7 million budgeted for 2020.
The city is expecting a revenue shortfall of about $4.4 million this year, largely as a result of the economic slowdown provoked by COVID-19.
Olson noted that the city’s debt rating had recently been downgraded by Moody’s, to Aa3 from Aa2, and in her view that took the option of dipping into the city’s reserves to plug budget holes off the table, as it could result in a further downgrade, which could raise the cost of borrowing to the city.
*We’ve reached out to the mayor and other council members and will update the story as we receive more comments. By Eric Timmons