Miami-Dade County

Mayor to Miami-Dade libraries: get more efficient to receive more money

With Miami-Dade libraries facing a budget crisis, Mayor Carlos Gimenez on Friday called for the system to trim spending more than the 25 percent cut sustained in the last four years.

“I don’t think we’re as efficient as we could be,’’ Gimenez told members of a task force he appointed to recommend changes to the library system. “If we had all the funding in the world, we’d still need to be as efficient as possible.”

When librarian and task-force member Katherine Seaver responded, “We’re down to 400 employees,’’ Gimenez suggested the county may need to look at whether the wages match the positions needed at the libraries.

“What do we pay our employees?” Gimenez asked. “That’s tough for me to say, but it’s the truth.”

His comments are the latest installment in the mayor’s push to remake the library into something that is both more modern and less expensive to run. The department’s $50 million budget faces a $20 million shortfall next year thanks largely to Miami-Dade lowering a special library tax rate while leaving the library to burn through reserves to sustain operations.

Advocates of the library system want tax rates restored to prior levels, arguing the current staff, equipment and book-buying budgets have been stretched as far as they can go. “We have lost so much,’’ said Seaver, who works at a county library in Cutler Bay. “We need to increase to maintain our services.”

The library’s budget stood at $63 million in 2010, and has dropped by about $15 million since, including a $9 million drop from last year’s operating budget. Libraries eliminated Sunday hours, cut staff, and slashed money for buying best-sellers, tutoring programs and other services.

A higher tax rate would reverse the trend, but Gimenez and others said they need to see a reworked library system before endorsing more revenue. They’re hoping technology improvements will let the libraries offer more with lower payroll costs.

“If we’re going to enhance the rate, we need to enhance service,’’ said Deede Weithorn, a Miami Beach commissioner and head of the county’s League of Cities. “When you pay more, you should get more.”

Library consultant Richard Waters on Friday said Miami-Dade’s system under-performs its peers, generating 4.5 uses per resident compared to an average of 9.4. Broward outperforms, hitting 10.9 uses (which counts when someone visits or checks something out of a library).

With reserves set to run dry this year, Miami-Dade’s 49-library system will need to cut expenses in the next budget cycle without higher revenues. Weithorn suggested using video-conferencing to let one librarian help customers in multiple libraries. “Skype a librarian,’’ Gimenez said. “I like that idea.”

Gimenez did not close the door to pushing for a higher tax rate (called the “millage”) if he could justify the increase. Taxpayers in the county library district, which excludes Hialeah and other cities with their own libraries, pay about 17 cents for every $1,000 of value of their property, compared to 38 cents in 2009. For a house worth $225,000, the median sales value in Miami-Dade, the library tax amounts to $38.25.

Gimenez also floated the idea of a non-binding straw poll that he said may create the political leverage needed for commissioners to approve an increase in the property tax earmarked for libraries. That’s the same tactic pet advocates used in 2012, but Gimenez and commissioners declined to create the special pet-shelter property tax endorsed by the straw poll.

Though this was supposed to be the final meeting of the mayor’s library task force, he said he will reconvene the group next month to consider a final report.