Saint Paul Library facing $1.3M reduction in its 2021 budget

By Jane McClure

Patrons of the Saint Paul Public Library will likely see fewer hours of service in 2021 as a result of a proposed $1.3 million cut to the city library budget. City Council members, who serve as the Library Board, began their budget review on September 2.

“Libraries are taking an outsized hit compared to the rest of the budget,” said council member and Library Board chair Jane Prince.

Library director Catherine Penkert said the cuts would be spread throughout the library system, but are the equivalent to closing a branch or eliminating the entire collections budget. “When you look for a reduction of over a million dollars from this budget for a system of our size, it’s pretty difficult to find anything to give,” Penkert said.

The library’s general fund budget is expected to drop from $19.5 million this year to $18.2 million in 2021. The library does have some special funds, but those are for dedicated programs.

Libraries were slated to be open 712 hours per week in 2020 before the pandemic hit. Based on current 2021 staff estimates, that would drop to 650 hours per week next year.

Staffing is expected to drop from 177 to 162 full-time equivalent (FTE) positions, which puts the library workforce at its lowest level since 2005. About 17 vacant positions would go unfilled, including a facilities manager and a public information person.

 

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“We just don’t have the workforce to be open at pre-COVID levels,” Penkert said.

The city’s 13 libraries shut down in the spring with the onset of the pandemic. The libraries then began online programming and contactless material pickup, and worked with Ramsey County to expand career resources.

The city’s libraries have started to reopen in recent weeks, with limited services and restrictions as to how many patrons can be in a building at one time.

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Handmade tiles at the Rondo Library. Photo by Brad Stauffer

“We just don’t have the workforce to be open at pre-COVID levels,” Penkert said.

It is not clear when or if the lost hours could be restored. Council members wondered whether the cuts would be temporary or part of a “new normal” for city government.

The library has operated on a tight budget for some time, with a lower collections budget than systems of the same size. Penkert said the library’s 2020 budget already included reductions in organizational memberships, software and supply purchases, building maintenance, a mobile printing service and a car that delivered mobile technology programming.

“We have very little left to cut,” she said.

Meanwhile, services sought from the library have continued to go up. There has been an increased focus on reading programs, help for people seeking employment and other services. The library also recently added a social worker to assist patrons.

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