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Wednesday, April 17, 2024

Libraries say they lose state aid under McKee’s proposed 2025 budget

Book burning by other means

By Alexander Castro, Rhode Island Current

McKee does a photo op reading a book to Westerly
school kids, but cuts library funding
Stop motion animation, a Portuguese cooking demo, free paper shredding, how to make vegan potato salad, and DIY embroidery to craft sew-on patches: These are just a few of the events upcoming at East Providence Public Library.

“People know that libraries have books,” said Meredith Bonds-Harmon, director of the East Providence Public Library. “But what we’re always looking to do is get new people in the door, so we offer a lot of free programming for the public to invite people into our spaces.”

But vegan cuisine and fiber crafts aren’t free for libraries. Some libraries say Gov. Dan McKee’s proposed budget for fiscal 2025 could hurt their ability to offer services beyond books and engage their communities. 

State law sets the state’s contribution to municipal library services at an amount equal to 25% of library expenditures from two years ago plus 25% of any money spent from private endowments. But the spending plan McKee submitted to the General Assembly for fiscal 2025 would effectively fund only 24.18% of what libraries spent in fiscal 2023.   

The lack of full 25% funding is not a problem specific to McKee’s administration. Data from the Office of Library and Information Services shows the 25% threshold has only been hit twice since 2009, in fiscal years 2023 and 2024. 

The Rhode Island Library Association proudly announced the House’s passage of a bill in June 2022 to add $1.4 million in funding for libraries in fiscal 2023, and again in January 2023 when McKee added $484,000 in his proposed budget.

Priorities are different this year, said Derek Gomes, a Department of Administration spokesperson.

“The Governor’s budget proposal recommends level funding PILOT [payment in lieu of taxes] and library aid because of the substantial, projected increase in education aid, which represents the largest component of local aid,” Gomes said.

Local aid comprises nearly $1.85 billion of the governor’s proposed fiscal 2025 budget. About $13.7 million of that would go to library aid, with the projected amount level-funded over five years — meaning the state budget could potentially include the same amount of funding for libraries until fiscal 2029. No recommendation has been made for library aid through 2029, Gomes said.

“In the coming years, the Governor will review library aid as part of all local aid needs and make annual budget recommendations based on available resources,” Gomes said. 

“The Governor is required to submit a balanced budget, which entails difficult decisions, because increases to certain programs may necessitate cuts to other programs. Governor McKee’s goal has been to submit fiscally responsible programs that invest in core government functions without raising broad-based taxes.”

But will fiscal responsibility mean less free stuff at the library?

“With the percentage that’s been proposed, we are missing out on about $15,000, which is not an insignificant amount of money for us,”  Bonds-Harmon said. “So that’s about half of our programming budget.”

East Providence’s three library locations spent over $1.8 million in fiscal 2023. A state aid level of 25% would mean East Providence would get $457,231 for fiscal 2025 — but at the current proposal of 24.18%, East Providence libraries will only receive $442,208.

Cranston Public Library would receive $22,000 less in state aid for fiscal 2025, said Ed Garcia, the library’s director. That same amount could pay for 80% of the Sunday hours budget, two-thirds of the technology budget, or the entirety of funds for newspapers and magazines, he added.

Garcia noted that 24 of 39 municipalities could see less state aid for the next five years. The bedrock of libraries’ state money is called grant-in-aid funding, which matches state dollars to a portion of municipal tax revenues as well as libraries’ individual endowments. 

The tax-based aid depends on what municipalities appropriated for libraries two years prior. The same timeframe, and ideal level of 25% aid, also apply to endowment-based aid, which varies widely among libraries — East Providence, for instance, had zero in endowments for fiscal 2023, while Warwick’s libraries received ​​$36,919.

Eligibility for grant-in-aid money itself relies on level funding: State law requires that libraries demonstrate “maintenance of effort,” meaning they must spend at least as much as they did the previous year.

“[Gov. McKee] is not cutting the funding, which is good,” said Megan Weeden, director of Coventry Public Library. “At least, it’s level funding. But the price of everything has just gone up in the past couple years.”

Coventry Public Library will receive more money than they did last fiscal year, Weeden said, because they spent their entire budget — but the proposed amount for fiscal 2025 is still short of a 25% grant, and overall about $9,000 less than the library had anticipated. Libraries that didn’t see an increase in their towns’ appropriations, or who weren’t able to spend their entire budgets as Coventry did, will see less state funding this year.

“They are actually losing money, and it can be quite a lot, too,” Weeden said. “So there’s a lot of money on the table libraries are missing out on.”

Town appropriations pay for the essentials of a library’s operations — salaries, utilities, books. But the grant-in-aid funding, Weeden said, funds programming, technology upgrades and even expanded Sunday hours.

“It funds all of our databases, ebooks, our participation in the consortium, so it pays for a lot of stuff,” Weeden said. “It’s a really nice boost for two years. It was like, ‘Oh, this is great.’ And so we were kind of counting on that going forward.” 

In the past, there have been attempts to revise the funding formula itself, like in 2016, when the Library Board of Rhode Island investigated criticisms that the current formula rewards wealthier communities but not libraries in poorer municipalities with smaller tax bases.

That report found a revision to the funding formula untenable at the time, Garcia said. “At the time, the recommendation was that the formula shouldn’t be revised until full funding was achieved,” he said.

So the librarians continue to advocate for their spaces. Catherine Damiani, director of Tiverton Public Library, wrote in a February letter to the Tiverton Town Council: “Tiverton Public Library is a community gathering place, an information hub, a primary workspace for some, and so much more. Full state aid funding would allow us to continue this mission and enhance what already important services exist for all who visit the library.”

The Tiverton council passed a resolution in support of their public library getting the full 25% of state aid. Other municipal councils — including Cranston, East Providence, and Bristol— have passed resolutions asking for the full amount of state aid. Companion bills in both the House and Senate, introduced by Democrats Rep. David Morales and Sen. John Burke, are attempting the same.

The wave of town council support suggests librarians’ pleas have been heard locally. But those cries are not quite audible on Capitol Hill just yet. Neither Morales’ nor Burke’s bills have had any movement since their respective introductions in early January and March.

Larry Berman and Greg Paré — spokespeople for the House and Senate, respectively — said in a joint statement via email: “The funding requests in the budget and in separate legislation will be considered as part of the overall budget deliberations which will take place later in May with the House, Senate and the Administration.”

Bonds-Harmon is hoping those deliberations will be positive for the state’s libraries.

“Libraries really count on the funds from the state because what we offer to the public is free resources,” she said. “So we’re not an organization that’s creating revenue…We’ll see where it goes with the state but it’s very useful and helpful for us when the public library gets the spotlight for a few minutes.”



Update: A comment from Coventry Public Library Director Megan Weeden has been clarified.

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