BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (WIAT) — The largest city budget in Birmingham’s history may lead to the closure of several public library branches.
On Tuesday, Mayor Randall Woodfin proposed the largest budget in city history, but the spending plan provides the library system $3.5 million less than officials have said is necessary to keep all 18 library branches open and fully staffed.
Documents that library officials provided to city councilors earlier this year broke down the costs of keeping branches open, location by location. The documents suggest that a funding gap of $3 million could put up to a dozen branch locations in danger of closure, although any final decision about how to cope with limited funding will be made by library officials.
Despite the funding gap, at Tuesday’s city council meeting, Woodfin said he believes libraries are fully funded.
“Our libraries are fully funded,” he told members of the council. “They’re fully staffed.”
Alice Speake said that Woodfin’s claim of full funding for Birmingham libraries is simply untrue. She is the founder of Save Birmingham Public Libraries, an organization aimed at lifting up and advocating for Magic City libraries.
“We will fight to get libraries funded to the level that they requested,” she said.
In a statement to CBS 42, the mayor’s office emphasized that the proposed budget reflects a year-over-year increase for the libraries. The statement avoided the issue of library closures, saying that “operational decisions” will be left to library officials.
“The proposed appropriation for the Birmingham Public Library represents a $1.5 million increase from the current fiscal year. We look forward to working with the council on the budget process,” the statement said. “The library board works with library leadership to make operational decisions.”
While the proposed budget represents a year-over-year increase for the libraries, it comes after the city cut the system’s funding significantly amid pandemic-related financial constraints in previous years – multi-million dollar cuts that led to the furlough of 158 library employees.
After adjusting past budget numbers for inflation, the level of funding for libraries proposed by Woodfin on Tuesday is 12.5 percent lower than when the mayor took office and 34.4 percent lower than in 2009, the earliest year online records are available.
Because of this context, Speake said, the mayor’s statement is misleading. She said that she’d prefer the mayor be more straightforward about his stance on library closures – for or against.
“I would prefer him to just say, ‘I want the Titusville library gone because I want the land it’s on,’” Speake said. “Then the public could actually make an authentic decision about what they’re going to bring to their city councilor or talk to the mayor about.”
What Woodfin’s doing now, Speake said, is “passing the buck” to library officials who asked for full funding but have now found themselves in an impossible predicament.
Woodfin’s budget is not final. The proposal will be considered by Birmingham’s city council, which will hear from the public at hearings scheduled for June 6 and June 16 at 5:30 p.m.
Councilors’ views on library closures are mixed.
Councilor Hunter Williams said Tuesday that sometimes having “too many libraries” can be a problem, although he said he wasn’t ready to comment on whether the mayor’s proposed budget fully funds the library system.
“You begin to ask – would it be better to put all of your resources in one location where you can provide more services to the community,” Williams said.
Councilor Carol Clarke told CBS 42 in an interview in November that there’s no such thing as “too many libraries.”
“It’s like somebody saying we have too many parks,” Clarke said. “How is that possible? When you think about how libraries have come to function in our communities: They’re digital access points. They’re safe havens for kids who sometimes live in hell. How can you really take that away?”
Councilor Smitherman has also expressed opposition to library closures, although she thanked Mayor Woodfin during Tuesday’s meeting “for the libraries.”
But after a library board meeting last year, Smitherman told CBS 42 she is opposed to closing libraries. She specifically emphasized her opposition to closing the Titusville Library, which is in her district.
“I’m from Titusville,” she said at the time. “I know the importance of the library. I grew up walking to the library. I pass by often.”
CBS 42 reached out to multiple library board and library administration officials for comment but has not yet heard back.