BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (WIAT) – When Kim Richardson made her presentation to the Birmingham City Council, she didn’t come empty-handed. Richardson, chair of the public library board’s long-term planning committee, had come prepared.

She brought with her to city hall documents outlining the financial needs of the library system, which she said has suffered for nearly a decade from “a continuous decline and decrease in the resources.” In a full-throated pitch to the city council’s education committee, Richardson said the amount of funding outlined in the documents provided to councilors is necessary to keep all of Birmingham’s library branches open and fully staffed.

That amount? Just over $18 million.

On Tuesday, Mayor Randall Woodfin proposed the largest budget in the city’s history. The budget does not provide the libraries with the $18 million outlined by Richardson and contained in the library’s projected budget documents. Instead, Woodfin allocated only $14.5 million to the 18-branch library system, an amount that, after inflation, is 12.5% lower than when the mayor took office and 34.4% lower than in 2009, the earliest year online records are available.

Funding for the Birmingham public libraries has trended down since 2009. (Source: City of Birmingham, Bureau of Labor Statistics)
Funding for the Birmingham public libraries has trended down since 2009. (Source: City of Birmingham, Bureau of Labor Statistics)

Still, in his presentation to the city council introducing his budget, Woodfin claimed that the $14.5 million reflects full funding for libraries.

“Our libraries are fully funded,” he told members of the council. “They’re fully staffed.”

Alice Speake said the mayor’s claim is untrue. She’s the founder of Save Birmingham Public Libraries, an organization aimed at lifting up and advocating for libraries in the Magic City.

“But we will fight to get libraries funded to the level that they requested,” she said.

After the release of the mayor’s budget, CBS 42 reached out to members of the library board and to library administration officials. While no individuals responded to CBS 42’s requests for comment, the library board released a statement on Wednesday afternoon saying that the system “anticipates being able to maintain its current level of service.”

“We look forward to working with the Mayor’s Office and the City Council throughout the current operating budget proposal process,” the statement said. “Based on the current budget proposal before the council, the library anticipates being able to maintain its current level of service. Any suggestion that the current proposed level of funding would not support that level of service is incorrect, speculative and does not represent the intent of the board and library leadership. Our board and the Mayor’s Office are aligned in our goals for continued excellence in our library services for the Birmingham community.”

For Alice Speake, the statement is the latest “spin” from local officials. She said it’s important to understand that the library’s current level of service is not the “fully staffed” world Woodfin has portrayed.

In her presentation to the city council, Kim Richardson said that for nearly a decade, the library has been “limping” along, unable to make necessary repairs and forced to rotate staff from branch to branch to keep doors open, often with limited hours.

“It really is a position or situation where we have been sort of propping our library system up, patching things together, placing Band-Aids on things, rotating staff from one branch to another, just not having adequate levels of staffing,” the library board member said.

If that’s the “current level of service” that the library system can maintain with the amount of funding Woodfin has proposed, it’s a shame, Speake said.

So how much would it cost to fully fund Birmingham Public Libraries?

Below are documents provided to city councilors by Richardson and other library officials and obtained by CBS 42 which detail the operational costs of the libraries, location by location. The 18 branches of the Birmingham public library system fall into three categories. In addition to the library’s central location, there are four regional locations, which are the largest; six community locations, which are smaller; and seven neighborhood locations, which are the smallest in the system.

Each of the regional locations – Avondale, Five Points West, North Birmingham, and Springville Road – costs about $925,000 to operate annually, according to the documents. Each of the community locations – East Lake, Pratt City, Smithfield, Southside, Titusville, and West End – costs about $320,000 a year to operate. Each of the neighborhood locations – East Ensley, Ensley, Inglenook, North Avondale, Powderly, Woodlawn, and Wylam – costs about $256,000 to operate each year.

Using these numbers, a funding gap of $3.5 million could place multiple branches at risk of closure – possibly even more than the four which were singled out for closure by the library board’s previous president. Any closures, though, would reflect a reduction in services, something the board has now said that it “anticipates” avoiding.

Final decisions on how to deal with limited funding will be made by library board members and library administration officials, but Kim Richardson has said there’s only so far the system can be stretched without library closures.

“If we can keep all our libraries open, I think that’s a wonderful thing,” she told city councilors. “But I think we also have to deal with the realities of where we’ve seen our budget cuts come from. Just as you would in your household or any other endeavor that you would have – if your budget has been cut by a third, something has to go. And again, we don’t want to see these closures. We want to make our position crystal clear. But we’d like to work collaboratively with you to determine how we can keep our library system, not just open and operating, but also operating at a standard and at a level that’s reflective of what we want our libraries to represent in this city.”

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.