Is the City right to shut libraries out of federal COVID aid?

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The pandemic has shuttered 14 of Detroit’s 21 public libraries until at least July 2022. Library officials say federal COVID aid could help with the cost of reopening and installing upgrades. (Detroit Free Press photo by Eric Seals)

The $826 million in federal COVID-19 recovery money that Detroit will receive has created a rift between the Detroit Public Library system and Mayor Mike Duggan. The issue: The city’s libraries are not getting a dime. 

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“People don’t realize this, but the City does not run the libraries, the Detroit public school board does,” Duggan said when he introduced his plan for the American Rescue Plan Act, or ARPA, funding in May. The historic amount of federal money is intended to help local governments recover from the deep economic pain caused by COVID-19. 

The pandemic has shuttered 14 of Detroit’s  21 public libraries for 18 months. Those libraries will remain closed until at least July 2022, according to library officials. 

Members of the Detroit Library Commission dispute Duggan’s claim, as does the Detroit Public Schools Community District (DPSCD). 


“It is a completely false statement,” said Russ Bellant, president of the library commission. The City government pays the library employees and approves the library system’s annual budget, among other things. The school district appoints members of the library commission, but it has no funding oversight of the library system. 

The library system has the money to reopen all library branches, but as the threat of the virus lingers, officials are still devising a plan on what it will take to keep the libraries safe, officials said. The cost of reopening and installing potential upgrades is unknown, which is one of the ways the libraries could use the federal funding, library officials contend.  

Many want ARPA funding for libraries

Many residents have advocated for libraries getting ARPA funds, which comes from taxpayers. “How can you say you believe in neighborhood investment when so many of the neighborhood libraries are closed?” asked Toyia Watts, president of the Charlevoix Village Association, an eastside neighborhood organization. “That’s such a valuable resource for people with families and others who don’t have the internet. It’s terrible,” she said. 

The Charlevoix Village Association helped organize an Oct. 8 protest that briefly shut down Woodward Avenue near Grand Circus Park downtown. About 90 people attended the rally that criticized the City’s spending priorities for the ARPA funds. Many who spoke at the event brought up helping the libraries, among other issues. 

Funding for libraries was frequently brought up by residents during 65 meetings that the City and community organizations held in May and June. Meeting participants were asked to name their priorities for spending the ARPA funds. City officials said they would use the responses to shape its plan. BridgeDetroit, Outlier Media and Detroit Documenters teamed up to attend or listen to a dozen of the community meetings. The Duggan administration had already decided to exclude libraries from its funding categories before the meetings were held.  

“I can’t help you on libraries,” Duggan told a resident during a May event when he outlined the City’s plan. “You have to talk to (DPSCD Superintendent Dr. Nikolai) Vitti and the school board, because I think that would be a really good conversation.” Beyond the specific funding for the City government, another $3.7 billion in ARPA funding is slated for K-12 schools statewide.

No public school money for libraries 

DPSCD cannot use its share of ARPA funds for the libraries, said Chrystal Wilson, the district’s assistant superintendent of communications and marketing.

These one-time relief funds designated for use by DPSCD are intended to support the learning and social emotional recovery of its K-12 students, provide the necessary health and safety resources in order to return to in-person learning and, to make necessary improvements to the district’s schools,” Wilson wrote in an email to BridgeDetroit. “As you may recall, a study of the district’s school buildings revealed over $1.5 billion in facilities is needed to bring them up to 2022 standards.”

Toyia Watts, president of Charlevoix Village Association, speaks at an Oct. 8 protest about the City’s plan for its American Rescue Plan Act funds. Watts and many others want money to be given to public libraries. (BridgeDetroit photo by Louis Aguilar )

‘No clear black and white answer.’

The public libraries are its own independent system governed by a seven-member Detroit Library Commission. Members are appointed by the Detroit Public Schools Board of Education.

The Duggan administration may have a point denying the Detroit libraries from ARPA funding, said Eric Lupher, president of the Citizens Research Council of Michigan.  

“There is no clear black-and-white answer,” Lupher said. The nonpartisan group has researched the Detroit Public Library’s governance, as well as the ways municipalities can spend ARPA funding. The answer is unclear because of the library system’s independent ruling body, but also due to some of the federal restrictions on APRA funds. 

The library system gets a vast majority of its funding from property tax and, so far, the pandemic has not heavily impacted property tax revenue in Detroit or elsewhere, Lupher said. Part of the ARPA guidelines state the money should compensate for the loss of tax revenue. 

However, the money can go toward infrastructure improvements, which could include libraries, Lupher said. 

“Could the City share some of its ARPA funding with the libraries? It probably could and no one would really be the wiser,” Lupher said. “It wouldn’t get on the radar, or raise questions, of anybody in Washington, D.C. or elsewhere.” 

Stalemate

The impact on future property tax revenue is unknown because Wayne County has had a ban on property tax foreclosures since the pandemic began, a ban that continues through March 31 for occupied homes and properties. That potentially means property tax revenue could drop, which would impact the library system, said Bellant of the library commission. 

In June, Bellant requested a meeting with Duggan officials, but so far, he says the mayor’s administration has not responded. The Duggan administration declined to comment for this story. 

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