Library cuts are forcing tough decisions on children’s books in Miami-Dade

With the county library system facing a $20 million budget gap, spending on childhood books is down 90 percent from previous years.

03/18/2014 7:33 PM

09/08/2014 7:09 PM

Third graders love reading about Lulu and her habit of adopting strays, be it a duck in a park or a cat in a bag.

The fictional seven-year-old’s strong following made her latest adventure, “Lulu and the Dog by the Sea,” an easy pick for Elizabeth Pearson, head of children’s titles for the Miami-Dade library system.

Then came the tough decision: Which libraries wouldn’t get the popular book?

“You hate to disappoint a kid,’’ said Pearson, who ordered 24 copies of “Lulu” for a library system with 49 branches. ”We have to prioritize the funding we have.”

Squeezed by tax cuts, Florida’s largest library system can’t buy nearly the number of children’s books it used to.

Countywide, Miami-Dade libraries budgeted about $90,000 for children’s books this year, a fraction of the $1.3 million the system spent in 2005 and about 60 percent below the $210,000 budget in place just three years ago.

Library systems serving more than 1 million people typically invest about $600,000 a year on children’s books, according to a 2012 survey by Library Journal. Despite a population topping 2 million, Miami-Dade’s children’s budget falls much closer to the $66,000 average that the publication calculated for libraries serving communities of 100,000 people — about the size of Miami Gardens.

Tight funding forces Pearson to perform literary triage each month as she places orders with publishers. The 28-year library veteran balances the promise of new titles like Lulu against the need to update reference series, keep pace with school reading lists and replace worn copies of childhood classics for new readers.

“We don’t like to loan out a book that tells a child it is OK to crayon on the pages,’’ Pearson said. “But we do. Because that might be the only copy of ‘Cat in the Hat’ that that library has.”

With the system facing a $20 million budget hole next year despite staff and service cuts, library funding promises to resurface as a top controversy for the county’s elected leaders.

A task force chaired by Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez is scheduled to meet for a final time Wednesday morning, with members set to consider a draft report outlining funding options and their potential consequences on the system’s $50 million budget.

The special property tax earmarked for libraries only generates about $30 million a year, and the cash reserves bridging the gap are forecast to run dry by the end of September. That leaves Gimenez to decide whether to push for the kind of property tax hike he briefly championed last summer, or follow through with the drastic library cuts he floated weeks later once he reversed course and opted to keep the tax flat.

That cost-cutting plan, staved off by temporary fixes, centered around closing 27 library branches, a little more than half of the current locations. At the last task force meeting, Gimenez also cited librarian wages as a potential cost savings, while others argued the digital age offers opportunities to serve more readers with fewer highly trained professionals.

“I hate to call it Skype a Librarian, but we should be able to Skype a librarian,’’ Deede Weithorn, a Miami Beach commissioner and task-force member, said at the Feb. 21st meeting. “If you don’t have the technical resource at one library, we should be able to Skype and share with another.”

A recent study by library consultant Godrey’s Associates found Miami-Dade’s library system both under-used and under-funded.

Comparing the county to nine other systems serving between 1 million and 3 million residents, Godfrey’s listed Miami-Dade as second lowest in overall funding: $13 per person, compared to an average of $27. And while the average system recorded 9.4 uses per resident — either by visiting or checking out materials — Miami-Dade only saw 4.5 uses each year per resident.

Eric San Juan beats the average, bringing his twin six-year-olds to the West Kendall library almost every day. But he had to turn to Amazon.com last year to keep the boys current on their summer reading.

“The school gives you a summer reading list, but when you go to check out the book, you can never find it,’’ San Juan said this week as son Christian read a jumbo dinosaur book and Sebastian played a game on a library computer. “When you order it online, it’s $16 a piece. And the kid will read it in one day.”

Revenue shortfalls have sapped about $36 million a year from the county’s libraries since 2009, leading to a string of cuts that included layoffs, cancelling Saturday homework help with Miami-Dade teachers and ending Sunday hours. With cash reserves set to run dry in October, the library system faces a $20 million budget gap next year.

In public remarks, Gimenez pointed to a larger $200 million county budget hole and warned that Miami-Dade’s library system must reinvent itself while also hewing to its core mission. “Libraries can be a great place where we can invest in our children and in our future,’’ he said. “That really excites me.”

Gimenez presided over one of the two tax cuts driving the current spending crunch at the libraries.

The former county commissioner came to office in 2011 promising to roll back the tax increases imposed under then-mayor Carlos Alvarez. But even Alvarez’s wildly unpopular 9 percent countywide hike in 2010 included a 26 percent drop in the special property tax that funds libraries.

Gimenez followed up in 2011 with a 37 percent cut in the library tax in his first budget. The tax, now $17.25 for every $100,000 of assessed value, gets charged to most property owners, except those in cities with their own library systems, including Hialeah, Miami Shores, North Miami and North Miami Beach, and the three coastal jurisdictions of Bal Harbor, Bay Harbor Island, and Surfside.

In 2008, the library rate stood at $38.22 for every $100,000 of value.

Though declining property values compounded the revenue loss in 2010 and 2011, the 2010 library tax cut now accounts for all of the current gap between the library tax’s $31 million revenue for 2013 and its $50 million budget. If the 2010 rate of $28.40 per $100,000 were still in effect, the tax would generate $51 million.

“It all comes down to what is the tolerance for paying taxes in this community,’’ said Raymond Santiago, Miami-Dade’s library director and a member of Gimenez’s task force.

In some ways, Pearson’s tough choice on “Lulu and the Dog by the Sea” offers fodder for both sides of the funding debate.

She only bought the 2013 edition for 24 branches, just shy of the 27 locations that would have survived in Gimenez’s original 2013 cost-cutting plan.

A library employee since the 1980s, Pearson eventually was promoted to the top pay scale for librarians and earned about $93,000 last year in total compensation, according to county records. That’s well above Miami-Dade’s average librarian wage of $63,000 for 2013, with Pearson earning the18th highest salary in the system’s 485-person online payroll report.

Advocates argue Miami-Dade shouldn’t be complaining that experienced librarians are earning a professional wage while performing key functions in the community, particularly when helping children to master reading.

For young readers, librarians “are the ones that open up new horizons for them and make them curious,’’ said Patricia Martinez-Gormley, a lawyer wop helped found Community Advocates for Libraries in Miami and whose husband works in the library’s purchasing department. “You need librarians to guide these young readers, because it’s an incredibly significant age in their literary development.”

While spending cuts have brought the library’s overall books, subscriptions and materials budget down 80 percent in four years to $1.2 million, Pearson sees unique challenges for the children’s section.

Children often won’t recognize out-of-date material in a reference work, such as no mention of the 2010 earthquake in a book on Haiti. “We had a whole bunch of books saying Pluto was a planet,’’ she said. Replacing them “was not cheap.” Miami-Dade schools typically instruct parents to read children at least one book a night, and it’s not uncommon for adults to check out 50 early-reading titles a week, Pearson said.

With the rise of serialized fiction thanks to Harry Potter, many children come to the library not just looking for a good book but a specific title from popular series like Dork Diaries, 39 Clues or The Olympians. Often, the system can’t meet demand for the sequels.

The library’s online catalog shows 153 requests for the system’s 15 copies of “Allegiant,” the last installment from a science-fiction series popular with high-schoolers.

American Girl, maker of a popular line of dolls, recruits respectable children’s authors to pen books starring their latest characters, but Pearson stopped buying the series to save money.

Girls “come in and ask for the doll’s name. They see them on the website,’’ Pearson said. “We lead them back to the old ones. Which most of them have already read.”

While adults generally don’t mind getting on a library’s wait-list for the latest best-seller, children tend to give up their hunt on the spot.

“When you a tell a kid the book isn’t there, Pearson said, “that tends to be it.”

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