Advocacy, Government, Libraries

Library Funding Series: Bracing for Budget Cuts

This is the first post in my Library Funding Series, a series of posts about my experiences and lessons learned from serving as the marketing and communications director for a public library during the 2008 recession and its aftereffects. My hope is that this series will help libraries prepare for potential funding challenges as a result of the economic challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Back in 2010, I was the head of marketing and communications for Charlotte Mecklenburg Library when the delayed effects of the 2008 recession hit us … hard. As a result of the recession, our primary funder, Mecklenburg County, had seen steep reductions in revenue from two important sources: sales tax and property tax.

We had been asked for a while to calculate possible budget reduction scenarios. But our first indication that something was very wrong was in Spring of 2010, when we were approached by County budget staff and asked to return 25% of our public funding for that budget year within the last three months of the fiscal year. In other words, funds that had already been committed to necessities like staff, maintenance and books had to be pulled back and returned within weeks.

On the heels of that news, we learned that in just a few more months, our public funding was going to be cut even more – by nearly 50% – for the fiscal year starting July 1, 2010. At that time, we had a system with 24 branches, over 500 employees and a projected budget of just under $40mm. 90% of that budget, or around $34mm, would come from the County. With jsut a few months’ warning, we learned that would be reduced to $17mm.

At the time, about 75% of our budget went to personnel costs. So there was no way to absorb a cut of that magnitude without losing staff. We could add up all of the other line items in the entire budget, including running water, electricity and books, and that wouldn’t add up to $17mm. The library had no choice but to reduce staff, and by extension, service hours and branches.

Why am I telling this story now? Because with continuing and unknown impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic, libraries are bracing for funding reductions. News stories from the Washington Post and other news outlets warn of budget shortfalls for municipal governments, many of whom support public libraries.

I am optimistic that the impacts won’t be as devastating as what we experienced in Charlotte in 2010. But it is my hope that I can share some of what I learned from that experience with libraries today, so that they can be better prepared for what lies ahead. That’s why I’m launching this “Library Funding Series.” It will be a series of blog posts detailing my experiences and lessons learned. Stay tuned for more posts. And in the meantime, hang in there and keep telling your library’s story. The work you do is valuable, and it’s an important story to tell!

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