County officials say restructuring the Schenectady County Public Library does not include layoffs or closing branches, even though the system is facing a half-million dollar decrease in its funding this year.
The plan, crafted by a panel established by the library’s board of trustees, cuts service hours and shifts personnel. County officials say most library patrons will see a smooth transition to the more fiscally sustainable model, likely go into effect in July.
“We like to call them savings,” county spokesman Joe McQueen said last week.
Granted, all 10 locations will be open fewer hours each week. In the very near future, the library will likely consolidate a pair of inner city branches — Hamilton Hill and Duane — in favor of a single facility located at the nexus of the city’s Central State, Vale and Hamilton Hill neighborhoods.
Patrons at the central library downtown and possibly at the Niskayuna branch will also find themselves checking out their own books by next year, freeing up some staff to do other library work. And library staff will spend less time processing new materials coming into the system for circulation because that service will be outsourced.
Other changes are already in effect. Patrons may now find themselves waiting longer to borrow a new book — a result of a roughly $100,000 drop in the library’s budget for materials.
And positions that are vacated through attrition and retirement are generally not being filled. Across the system, the library now employs 57 workers, a 21 percent drop from 2002.
“In some sense, this is nothing new,” said Karen Bradley, who took over as director last year. “Over the years, we’ve been moving in this direction.”
All told, the library’s budget was reduced $521,000 from the $5.71 million the county Legislature allocated for its operation in 2012. The cut — including $250,000 made by amendment before the legislators adopted the budget in October — also came with the study directive.
The idea was to take a top-down look at how library services are used by the community and to take stock of the facilities, so that the cost-cutting changes wouldn’t have a noticeable impact. More importantly, the restructuring is aimed at setting the library system on a fiscally stable path, said Gary Hughes, the leader of the Legislature’s Democratic majority and a member of the restructuring committee.
“We wanted to do that in a way that it would be sustainable,” he said.
Work on the restructuring plan started before the committee was even formed. A usage survey of roughly 4,500 patrons across the county was conducted in November, providing library staff and the trustees with a framework for how changes could be made.
“We used that data to begin to make some assumptions and evaluate how we were going to handle that charge [from the Legislature],” board President Cheryl Cufari said.
In December, the ad-hoc committee was formed, comprised of two legislators, five trustees, two members of the public, two county officials, Bradley, Assistant Director Serena Butch and a member of Friends of the Library, a decades-old support group. The trustees also employed Elissa Kane, private consultant, to oversee the restructuring.
Cufari said the committee paid close attention to the demographics of the county, the survey and also the raw data collected from circulation numbers at each location. “We looked at it very closely, always having in mind what the library stands for in the community,” she said.
They paid particular attention to when patrons were using the library system. Hughes said each branch had times when usage dropped significantly, which gave the committee ideas on where they could reduce hours and realize savings.
For instance, staff at the large suburban branches reported a significant drop in usage after 8 p.m. on weekdays. As a result, the committee is recommending the branches in Rotterdam, Niskayuna and Glenville close half an hour earlier on Mondays and Wednesdays.
Rotterdam and Niskayuna will have more significant reductions, closing at 5 p.m. on Thursdays. But to offset this change, the Glenville branch will remain open until 8 p.m. on Thursdays, and instead close at 5 p.m. on Tuesdays.
This way, Hughes explained, groups using the libraries will always have one of the suburban branches open until 8 p.m. between Monday and Thursday. He said the reductions outlined in the plan aren’t huge and mean the system can continue on without closing a branch.
“We’re doing the same thing a retailer would do, which is close when there aren’t any customers in the store,” he said.
The restructuring also includes a plan to outfit library material with radio frequency identification chips for an automated checkout system. A state grant will pay for the equipment at the central library in Schenectady and possibly at the Niskayuna branch.
Bradley anticipates the new system will be operational by January, and said it could save upward of 64 hours of clerical work per week — time that is needed to cope with the lower staffing levels.
“This will hopefully help fill that gap,” she said.
But perhaps the most significant change outlined in the restructuring plan won’t come about until next year: a merger between the Duane branch on State Street and the Hamilton Hill branch on Craig Street.
The merger is expected to create a new, stronger branch.
Hughes said both branches have drastically outgrown their locations and are unable to serve neighborhood needs.
For instance, both branches are too small for a literacy center — an area to host programs aimed at improving childhood literacy rates in the city.
Hughes said the plan is to establish a new, larger facility in place of the two branches with a literacy center that could serve the Central State, Vale and Hamilton Hill neighborhoods. He said a centrally located facility could also serve the Internet needs of those communities.
Hughes said the library could leverage some of a $706,000 bequest it received in 2011 into establishing a consolidated branch somewhere in the middle of the three neighborhoods.
The gift was left by Phyllis Bornt of Scotia, who directed it be used toward the betterment of the nine branches.
“That’s one of the things we’re sorting out but it seems feasible,” he said.
A draft of the restructuring was presented to trustees in March, but both county and library officials declined to release it at the time. The final plan is expected to be presented on Thursday and then forwarded to County Manager Kathleen Rooney by May.
Hughes doesn’t anticipate much objection to the changes.
”We want a system that we know meets the needs of the community,” he said. “We wanted to do that in a way that would be sustainable.”
But some aren’t convinced the restructuring hides the fact that the library is essentially losing 10 percent of its budget. John Karl, a former trustee and now president of Friends of the Library, said there’s no easy way to stomach the cuts made by the Legislature last year.
“We have reductions. We have people at the county level who are not familiar with what the library does … and it means they make fiscal decisions strictly on dollar amounts,” he said.
Karl, who reviewed a draft of the restructuring, was generally supportive of the plan. Still, he fears the cuts, coupled with the relatively flat funding for library over the past five years, is starting to eat away at what has historically been a very strong system.
“You can’t keep cutting and keeping the services going,” he said.
The county system’s spending per capita was about $35 in 2010. This is less than half the per capita spending of the Albany Public Library and less than a third of what is expended per person by the Saratoga Springs Public Library.
But the county’s system is also unique in that it’s funded through the Legislature’s operating budget. Most of the other libraries throughout the greater Capital Region are funded by spending plans adopted by their trustees and then passed during the budget vote for the local school district.
Karl said communities that vote for the library budget along with the school district budget tend to offer a greater degree of financial support for their system. He said ideally, the Schenectady County library would become a special legislative district, so that it wouldn’t fall prey to cuts whenever the county budget becomes strapped for cash.
“You have a fantastic library system and you have a fantastic staff and what [the county is] doing is placing an incredible burden on them,” he said.