Detroit Public Library officials say they’re struggling to pay for facility repairs needed to reopen aging branch locations while some City Council members are encouraging the library to dip into its savings.
Mayor Mike Duggan’s fiscal year 2024 budget proposal allocates $35 million for library operations, an increase of $1.6 million from the previous year. DPL built up a $31 million fund balance during the pandemic, saving $12 million since 2021 by operating with fewer staff and branches. The library has used its savings to incrementally fix aging facilities over the last several years, but DPL officials say they are hesitant to make the fund balance a permanent source of cash for capital improvements.
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DPL is also asking the council to amend its 2023 budget with an increase of $4.5 million. The amendment would pay for the restoration of the Main Library, which was damaged by severe flooding in 2021, along with roof repairs at the Knapp, Redford and Wilder branches as well as HVAC replacements for the Chase and Hubbard branches.
The last Detroit Public Library branch was built in 1981, and three were built before 1920. DPL Executive Director Jo Anne Mondowney told the council last week that retrofitting old facilities has been challenging because many weren’t designed for the digital age. Library services have made a large shift toward offering online resources, technology training and free internet access in the last few years.
“We have very tiny libraries that we’ve tried (to make) able to provide the services needed in the 21st century,” Mondowney said during a Friday budget hearing. “The fund balance we have used since 2015 was to restore six libraries that would not be manageable to even walk into.”
DPL Chief Financial Officer Antonio Brown said DPL plans to operate 20 of 21 locations this year as it continues to reopen branches previously closed by pandemic restrictions. The Chase, Conley, Hubbard and Monteith branches remain closed for facility repairs, while the downtown Skillman Branch is shut down due to construction at the nearby Hudson’s site.
Brown said the proposed 2024 budget is balanced by using $2.9 million of the library’s fund balance. Library officials didn’t disclose the total cost of capital needs at the Friday budget hearing.
Mondowney said the Skillman Branch shook when construction equipment was brought to the Hudson’s site, which activated fire suppression sprinklers and caused damage to the National Automotive History Collection. Mondowney said Friday that she didn’t have details on the estimated damage, but insurance helped cover some of the cost.
Brown said DPL hasn’t found $3.3 million in capital funds needed to pay for a new roof, structural repairs, modifications to become compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act at the Monteith Branch. Library officials are not considering a fundraising campaign, Brown said.
“We’re utilizing our fund balance for one-time capital expenditures because we don’t have access to capital,” Brown said last week. “I always say the fund balance is fool’s gold. Had we been open (during the pandemic), we would have used more fund balance than we would have saved.”
Council Member Scott Benson, who has advocated for more city involvement in library decisions, said the DPL should permanently dedicate a piece of its “very healthy” fund balance toward capital improvements. Benson suggested creating an endowment fund to pay for future repairs and maintenance.
Benson said DPL should also consider offloading aging library facilities in favor of building new “state of the art” libraries across the city.
“I want us to start looking at the future and utilize other means to operate the branches, rather than the library’s fund balance,” Benson said during the hearing.
Benson said he’s a “firm believer” that the City of Detroit should have representatives on the Library Commission. Currently, members are selected by the Detroit Public Schools Board of Education.
“There will be a far greater willingness to give, from the City of Detroit, if we had the opportunity to have a greater level of say,” Benson said.
Council Member Fred Durhal asked how the library system kept its expenses down during the pandemic, since services were reduced. Brown pushed back against the perception that DPL was completely closed during the pandemic, saying six branches and the mobile library remained open across the city.
“We didn’t stop our library services at all,” Brown said.
Council members asked library officials about the status of branch locations in their districts. Brown said branches are back to being open 49 hours a week and the Main Library is open 48 hours per week.
Council Member Angela Whitfield-Calloway said branch locations have inconsistent hours of operation, which confuses residents. Mondowney said staffing shortages caused branches to have irregular hours.
DPL is budgeted for 325 full-time positions, but Brown said there are 96 vacancies, including 46 part-time customer service representatives. Brown said recruiting efforts are key to reopening branch locations after repairs are made.
“As we’re ramping up, employee costs are even higher than they were two or three years ago,” Brown said.
Brown argues the Hudson’s project makes the downtown branch inaccessible. Benson said construction is a sign of a healthy downtown and shouldn’t cause libraries to close down. He suggested reopening the Skillman Branch could help encourage philanthropic support from downtown organizations.
Brown said a report is being assembled this month to determine what it would cost to reopen the Skillman Branch. Bedrock Detroit started construction of the Hudson’s site, a mixed-used development including office, hotels, restaurants and apartments, in 2017 and is expected to finish next year.
“As long as those cranes and that monstrosity of a building is still being erected, because of the challenge in getting downtown, (Skillman) is likely to remain closed,” Brown told the council. “We’re intending to open the branch, but just from a management standpoint it didn’t seem feasible to open while there’s major construction at that site.”
Council members and library officials agreed to use the budget hearing as a jumping off point for deeper discussions about library revenues, tax captures and capital improvements.
Budget estimates project $33.5 million in revenue for 2023. Salaries and wages make up the largest spending category, with $15.8 million budgeted in 2024.
Most of the library’s revenue ($30 million) comes from property taxes. A dedicated millage of 4.63 mills expires in 2025 and must be renewed by voters to prevent the library from shutting down. A Detroit Law Department memo shows renewal millages approved after 2017 are exempt from tax captures unless the library opts in, which means the library could see a big bump in funding.
The Downtown Development Authority is expected to collect $3.7 million in property taxes from the library in 2023, while the library keeps $156,992. Assuming a renewal millage passes, the library would collect $3.6 million in 2025 while the DDA would get $540,281.
Library officials said they were unable to comment on the implications of that scenario, since they received the Law Department memo just before Friday’s budget hearing.
Durhal said libraries are essential community hubs, but children today have access to a vast sea of information through the internet. The library needs to find ways to stay relevant and sustainable, Durhal said, as the council ensures tax dollars are efficiently spent.
“When we look at third grade reading levels, particularly in urban areas, and the correlation between that and the incarceration rate in our state, I understand the importance of those libraries,” Durhal said.
Mondowney said the library should be the “go-to place for literacy and learning” in Detroit.