More cutbacks for library, as police spending increases

Austerity will continue for the La Crosse Public Library but spending on police will increase under the city’s proposed 2021 budget.

The library was forced to take a big financial hit over the summer, with the city council approving a 10% reduction in its budget, or $525,000, which resulted in 15 job losses and furloughs for other staff.

There was significant public pushback against the cutbacks, including a rally outside the library and a campaign to reinstate the lost funding that saw 421 emails sent to council members. The demonstrators contrasted the 10% cutback at the library with the council’s decision at the time to cut police spending by less than 1%.

Now, the city’s tentative budget for 2021 would cut the library’s budget back even further, while largely repairing the minimal cutbacks that were made to the police department’s budget.

The library’s original 2020 budget was $5.1 million but that was cut to $4.5 million as the city adjusted spending to deal with the economic fallout from covid. Hours have been scaled back at the main library and the the north and south side branches have not reopened since they were closed due to the pandemic, except for a one hour per week curbside pick-up service. The proposed library budget for 2021 is $4.4 million.

At the police department, which has a much larger budget, the original 2020 spending plan was $11.7 million, which has now been revised to $11.4 million for the year, but would rise back up to a little over $11.6 million in 2021 under the current budget plan. No police jobs have been lost, unlike at the library.

The council has already begun reviewing the 2021 budget, with two board of estimates meetings held this month. There will be further hearings next month, ahead of a final vote in November. You can view the draft 2021 budget at this link.

“Minimal” service hour increase

The current budget plan would allow for a limited increase in library hours next year, Library Director Shanneon Grant told The La Crosse Independent.

“The proposed budget does include funding for two additional positions for part of 2021,” Grant added. “While this is a step in the right direction, it would allow for a minimal service hour increase.”

Grant said the library’s current service hours will remain as they are through the remainder of this year, which means the library will continue to be closed on Wednesdays and Sundays. The library is open on other days for in-person holds pickups and scheduled computer appointments.

“We are currently in the planning stages for our next phase, which will include limited browsing,” Grant said.

In addition to cutting four full-time and 11 part-time jobs, Grant said the library also furloughed eight full-time workers for three months with “every remaining staff member intermittently furloughing throughout the remainder of 2020.”

“Our plan right now is to get through 2020 to a point where we are no longer furloughing staff, and then re-assess how to best move forward with both staffing considerations and public health metrics,” Grant said. “We will continue working with the city towards gradually restoring services based on the needs of our community.”

“To what degree am i culpable?”

The ease with which the council appears willing to slash library spending, while handling the police budget with kid gloves can be at least partly attributed to how council members prioritize different kinds of spending.

“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?,” council member Jessica Olson told The La Crosse Independent in June.

Protesters who rallied for library funding to be reinstated over the summer noted that the library was “a critical resource for preserving and improving the educational, economic, and civic health of our community.” But their calls appear to have fallen on deaf ears at City Hall.

The proposed 2021 budget would send library spending back by years, and it may be difficult to restore that funding. The economic impacts of the pandemic will likely last over several budget years, Grant said, and “when faced with sizable reductions earlier this year, we were tasked with seeking long-term solutions.”

Compared to the library’s $4.8 million budget in 2017, spending on the library will be 9% lower in 2021 at $4.4 million under the draft budget. Over the same period, spending on police will have increased by 7% to $11.6 million.

Council member Gary Padesky, who also sits on the library board, said it “would be nice to have more money” for the library. He said there was a possibility the north and south side branches could partially reopen next July. That was dependent on being able to have two staff at each branch during open hours, he added, and on the covid situation at that time. Padesky noted that it was still possible that the budget for the library and other city departments could be adjusted before a final spending plan is approved in November.

The proposed 2021 budget is for operational spending, or day-to-day expenses. The city also has a separate five-year capital budget, which pays for upgrades to buildings, equipment and various pieces of infrastructure. That budget includes the plan to build a $36 million police and fire station, with an initial $1 million in spending planned for 2021. The library will get a proposed $2.3 million in capital spending over the same period, including $810,000 next year, most of which is earmarked for improvements to the currently closed south side library.

By Eric Timmons. Email questions or story ideas to lacrosseindependent@gmail.com.

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