Miami-Dade County

Task force begins to tackle how to fund, operate Miami-Dade libraries

Miami-Dade County has 49 public libraries packed with 1,647 computers and more than 4 million books. What it doesn’t have is enough money to keep the libraries open.

So how can the public library systems survive for years to come?

On Wednesday, a task force convened by Mayor Carlos Gimenez began meeting to try to answer that question.

“I would like for us to create the library system of the future,” Gimenez told the task force in the County Hall commission chambers.

The 17 members didn’t make any suggestions yet. Instead, they started to wrap their arms around the scope of the problem.

The library budget, which is funded by property taxes separate from the county’s general fund, faces a projected $21 million shortfall next year. County commissioners just barely staved off significant cuts this year by raiding one-time reserves.

Jennifer Moon, the county’s budget director, delivered more bad news Wednesday: With the county making more refunds than expected to homeowners who contested their property assessments, there will be even less money coming in to the libraries this year — $2.2 million less than budgeted.

“Thank you, Jennifer, for depressing us all,” joked Raymond Santiago, the library department director.

He offered a brighter picture, explaining the library system’s history, beginning with the first library, established in Coconut Grove in 1895. More than 6.2 million people visited the county’s libraries last year.

The library system has relied on reserves to operate over the past few years. Those will run out in 2014 unless the county hikes up the property-tax rate. Though Gimenez initially suggested doing so this year, he quickly changed his mind and said he is unwilling to raise the tax rate in the future.

“Necessity breeds innovation,” Gimenez said Wednesday, calling the looming library budget shortfall an opportunity for reinvention. “It’s good every once in a while to have a little crisis.”

When one of the task force members suggested seeking more private contributions to the libraries, Gimenez said that would be “gravy” – but not the way to sustain the library system.

“We do have a lot of people here with a lot of money. Maybe they’ll be willing to step up to the plate,” he said. “I don’t think we should count on charitable donations to be part of the normal operations of the library, because if that dries up, we’re back to square one.”

Gimenez wants recommendations from the task force by February. Those ideas will likely range from how many hours the libraries should operate to what programs they should offer to how they can better promote their services to the community.

Beginning next week, four working groups will get into the nitty-gritty details of the library system’s funding and operations. The groups — each one with a different focus — will report their findings to the task force by mid-December.

Gimenez’s administration has also sought an outside consultant to look into how local cities that run their own libraries, such as Hialeah and Miami Shores, manage their systems compared to the county. And the county will be surveying library employees, patrons and residents who do not use the facilities — likely polling them by phone — to get a feel for what residents think of the libraries.

Task force members include representatives from some of those cities as well as from library advisory and funding boards, labor unions that represent library employees, groups that serve children and the elderly, the Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce, the Knight Foundation and the Miami Foundation.