Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Otis Library and the 2011-2012 budget

Last night was the last public meeting on the proposed 2011-2012 city budget. There may be more such forums, in as much as state government and employee unions are engaging in a game of brinkmanship that John Foster Dulles would envy. What the final state budget will look like remains a matter of speculation. I took the opportunity to speak on the library's behalf, and wanted to share some of my comments with you. I addressed the impact of the $50,000 allocated to the library for 2011-2012, and ended with some observations regarding the municipal budget process:

The addition of $50,000 to the library’s allocation is welcome, and much appreciated. The immediate effect, an end to the 2 week summer furlough is particularly gratifying. For two weeks during each of the last two years the public was denied access to essential services and every staff person faced the prospect of two weeks without a salary. I know I speak for the staff and board of the library in expressing relief and thanks that the end of this dismal period is imminent. I would be remiss if I did not remark on the status of the library even with the restoration of these monies. I do this while keeping in mind the mantra which now appears in every discussion of budgets, be they Federal, state, or local: “shared pain.” What follows clearly establishes that the library has born it share of pain.

The 2011-2012 allocation, $936,228, most closely resembles the 2005 allocation for the library, $917,000. This was at a time when the library occupied its former, smaller site at 261 Main Street and its equally modest temporary site at 2-6 Cliff Street. Those facilities, converted department stores, were half the size of the current library, 20,000 vs. 40,000 square feet. In addition, the former site attracted less than half the annual patronage of the new facility.
Per capita support in 2005 was $29.06. This coming year, based on the latest census information it will be $21.77.
If our allocation is approved our operating budget will reflect a 5% increase over 2010-2011, versus a 6% increase for the city’s general operating budget, and is still $185,000 less than the 2008-2009 operating allocation. We will account for .58% of the city’s budget at a time when library services on average account for 1% of municipal operating budgets.
My point here is not to overstate the condition of the library, or appear insensitive to the conditions in other departments which face cuts and the pain and stress that induces. Keep in mind that the library experienced plenty of the latter over the past two years: lost public service hours, lost staff, lost resources and two weeks of inaccessibility each summer. We have to be empathetic. It is not to overlook the angst of tax payers. This year the library operates on a budget that is less than 8% higher than its budget for fiscal year 2005-2006, the last year in our smaller, antiquated facility. Our per capita operating expenditures over that time have increased by $2.00, from $27.50, to $29.50.

I note that on page 7 of the proposed city budget there is the following statement: “From fiscal year 2002 to fiscal year 2011, non-education expenditures have grown only 13.6% compared to the 26.4% increase in the Northeast Consumer Price Index from July 2001 to July 2010 – that is just a little over half the rate of inflation!” An estimable accomplishment, but over the same time the library has accommodated itself to even tighter financial discipline. We felt the effects of the pain and fiscal stringency before it was shared.

Regarding the budget process, and its relationship to the vision of Norwich’s future. I would like to see a few additions made to each year’s budget process. First, I would like to see a clearly stated vision for the city at the beginning of the budget document. There are succinct city wide goals included in the opening pages of the budget, and these are a good beginning, but they need the added energy of a statement that clearly identifies the fiscal year budget as part of a long range strategy to resuscitate the city. We have been through two horrific fiscal years in Norwich. Those budgets reflected deep and painful rescissions, and a diminution of services in several areas. It behooves city government to say we know how difficult these budgets were to accept, but you need to know that we have learned, we are taking the requisite steps to ensure that these parlous times teach us how to better prepare for the future, the importance of articulating priorities that the public can accept with confidence as a reflection of a long term strategy for sustaining and where necessary rebuilding the fabric of the community. Those goals and objectives should be reiterated at every opportunity, and proposed actions both operating and capital should clearly reflect the contents of the goals and objectives. In closing, people are willing to follow and support planning based on clearly defined priorities building substantive, positive change. It will take a bit of reflection and planning but the results will be invigorating.

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