Thursday, March 7, 2013

Tossing Dwarfs?: It’s Time To Demand That We Change The Way We Fund Libraries . . End The False Political Theater

Aragorn throwing Gimli in "The Two Towers"
It turns out that there was an inside joke buried in the Lord of the Rings trilogy that, as many times as those films have been watched in my own household, I never realized was there until just days ago.  It turns out there has also been an inside joke going around during the Bloomberg years having to do with the annual budget negotiations to fund the city’s libraries.  Whatever good fun might have been intended by the crew creating LOTR, when it comes to the annual negotiations between the City Council and the mayor to fund the libraries the laugh is squarely on the little guys of this city, and I am afraid those of us who are considered “little guys” includes all but a very elite few.

I never knew there was something called “dwarf tossing.”  Those insiders who know about it and like to play the game are often viewing it as something of a sport, even though its ethics have been debated by the United Nations.  ‘Tossees’ have been killed.  That ought to be enough to readily turn one against the practice but you can nevertheless find erudite essays on the ethics of  “dwarf tossing” on the internet.  I am referring to the pursuit that literally involves the tossing around of dwarfs as some sort of perverse entertainment but those same essays would apply almost equally well to what has been going on in the yearly battles about library budgets in the Bloomberg era: It has been turned into a circus, an intentional kind of political theater and I am informed that the insiders, viewing the show wryly and dismissive of its genuineness, refer to it by the same term, “dwarf tossing.”

The idea is that libraries are the little guys, a pittance that should be easy to include in the city budget, especially given that the money goes far since libraries are so well used: “More people visited public libraries in New York than every major sports team and every major cultural institution combined.”   Libraries are the little guys about whom almost everybody will care as their fates get a cruel tossing around every year to create a distraction.  Lots of New Yorker’s don’t have time to spend figuring out the New York City budget leaving, such concerns to their elected officials.  Those who do care enough to start learning a little, but not enough, are going to be satisfied with the battle that is put up for show: Big bad mayor cuts libraries, the City Council does battle and in the end City Council members and Borough Presidents ride in like heroes with discretionary funds to make up some of the cuts.

What’s wrong with this picture is that none of it should be going on the first place and that in the end, despite the pleasing happy-ending show of heroism, it still leaves the libraries underfunded.  So underfunded, in fact, that now at the end of the Bloomberg era as part of an overall bigger end-of-term fire sale to the real estate industry* Bloomberg is getting ready to sell off libraries and shrink the system.
(* Mid-town rezoning anyone?)
This is not what City Council or Borough President discretionary funds are for.  And if the City Council and Borough Presidents have the imagination for how those funds ought to be better used (and they indeed should) they ought to be screaming their heads off about the intentional underfunding of libraries, not content that "saving libraries" is an easy way to use the funds while looking as if they are riding to the rescue on a white horse.

First, before we go any further, here is our nugget of Lord of the Rings trivia, the hidden joke for those in the LOTR know.  We should establish, up front Aragorn is a full-sized human being and Gimli is from the Middle Earth’s race of dwarfs:
    Aragorn: It's a long way.

    Gimli: Toss me.

    Aragorn: What?

    Gimli: I cannot jump the distance, you'll have to toss me.
    [pauses, looks up at Aragorn]

    Gimli: Don't tell the elf.

    Aragorn: Not a word.
Important to the joke is that the elves of Middle Earth are full-sized individuals.  You see it’s embarrassing to be tossed around just because you're littler.  This scene is actually a follow-up to an earlier scene in the saga where, at the broken bridge in the Mines of Moria, Gimli told Aragorn, “Nobody tosses a dwarf!” before jumping over a large gap himself.  The Lord of the Rings was filmed in New Zealand, one of the countries where literal “dwarf tossing” is apparently much more common.

Tomorrow, Friday, the City Council is holding a committee hearing on the library budgets. Noticing New York has previously linked to and quoted the new Center For An Urban Future:  Report - Branches of Opportunity, by David Giles, January 2013, but one Noticing New York reader pointed out some language from that report, noting its relevance to the hearing.

Said our reader:
For anyone considering speaking at the City Council Budget Hearing next week, here is a link to a report which gives some useful background information about the citywide library budget and what Councilmember Van Bramer, who will be chairing the hearing, thinks of the way it is being managed under this administration. The report, "Branches of Opportunity" comes from a business-oriented think tank, and probably some of us would dispute parts of it, but the criticisms of the budget process at page 30 are worth a look. As you probably know, unlike many other cities, New York does not have a fixed operating budget baseline for libraries, treating them not as city agencies but as charities, and this leads to annual political dramas in which their budgets are drastically cut and partially restored. The report documents the incremental but draconian cuts over time, masked by the publicity about restoring funding. The full report is available at
The language from the report our reader directs attention to is (emphasis supplied by NNY):
Despite record attendance and circulation numbers, and a dramatically expanded list of programs and resources, New York City libraries face a number of serious challenges to their continued success-and number one, without a doubt, is funding. All three library systems have experienced funding cuts totaling tens of millions of dollars in recent years, but cuts aren't their only financial obstacle. In many ways, the lack of security afforded by the city's budget process has been at least as big a problem.

Although libraries depend on the city for the lion's share of their budgets, they are technically independent 501(c)(3) entities, not government agencies. Like spending for other non-profit cultural institutions and several city programs like the Summer Youth Employment Program, library budgets are often not completely accounted for in the mayor's Financial Plan, a document that balances expenditures with real and expected revenues over several years. Instead, when it comes time to enact a given year's budget, the City Council tends to negotiate higher funding levels for libraries than is called for in the Financial Plan. According to observers, this process gives the mayor more control over the final budget and lets council members look like heroes when they produce the inevitable restorations. However, the revenue sources both parties agree upon in order to provide library funding are guaranteed for only one year. The discrepancy between the libraries' ostensible budget as seen in the Financial Plan and their actual budget has tended to not only continue from year to year but widen even further.

In 2007, City Council Speaker Christine Quinn acknowledged the toll this annual Kabuki dance can take on an agency's effectiveness and, along with several other government supported organizations and programs, announced the city's intention to start "baselining" library budgets in the Financial Plan. That summer the city increased library funding by $42 million, which enabled the libraries to extend hours and grow their user base, but the city never got around to correcting the accounting gimmick that shorts libraries in the Financial Plan.

After the financial crisis in the fall of 2008, the gap between the libraries' ostensible budgets in the Financial Plan and their actual budgets grew so large that in 2011 they faced the prospect of a truly catastrophic $100 million cut. Although the June budget deal once again restored the vast majority of that proposed cut, efforts to win back the funds ate up significant human and financial resources-resources that could have been deployed toward long-term planning and fund raising efforts.

"So much manpower is wasted on responding to cuts and threats of cuts," says Jimmy Van Bramer, chairman of the City Council's committee on libraries and cultural institutions. "You have to find ways to save funds, close floors, cut hours-the planning effort is immense." According to some library officials, the lack of a baseline also makes it difficult to fundraise from private sources, since some funders want to be assured that they're not just filling in a budget hole created by the city.

Moreover, as we have already seen, the libraries aren't held completely harmless in the end. Even though the yearly restorations tend to get framed by council members and the press as "wins" for the libraries, since Fiscal Year 2008, all three systems have in fact suffered significant cuts. Brooklyn and Queens have seen their budgets reduced by around $15 million each since 2008, and NYPL has suffered a nearly $24 million reduction, not counting a new round of mid-year cuts announced late last year.

All three systems have reduced their acquisition budgets and hours of service in response.
While this report notes that City Council Speaker Christine Quinn called for an end to the annual Kabuki dance in 2007 what actually happened (after a brief uptick in funding when the mayor, Quinn, and others ran in 2009 for third terms under the city charter they altered for that purpose) the “dwarf-tossing” dance of destruction continued with plummeting city funding.  This plummet in funding was (coincidentally?) at the exact same time the library systems, following the model launched when the Donnell Library (not yet reopened) was closed for shrinkage in 2008.  In assessing the work of powerful politicians like Quinn, I would advise that it is always more important to judge by results than by rhetoric.
Chart from Center From Urban For Future report showing sharp decline in funding against escalating use.   That bump in funding? The third term elections.
As Noticing New York has pointed out in previous articles this underfunding is being used by city officials collaborating with library officials (often not very differentiated from each other) to manufacture plausibility when they say that the libraries now have to be sold off because they are underfunded.

To those following real estate in this city, Kabuki dance theater of this kind will probably seem very analogues to what they see in the various land use and zoning hearing and review processes where developers come making requests padded with some palpably absurd notions so that local elected officials can be heroes when they then excise them.  But in the end development abuses that shouldn’t be allowed still wind up being approved.

Here is another version of “dwarf tossing” Kabuki theater connected to library budgets.

The Brooklyn Public Library, one branch of the city’s tripartite system (all funded principally by the city), has two libraries in mind to sell off at the top of longer, now admitted but still undisclosed list, that according to what the BLP itself is making public, potentially includes virtually every library in Brooklyn as a target.  One of these first two libraries on the hit list is the current Brooklyn Heights library, actually two libraries functioning together on an integrated basis (the neighborhood’s branch library and the central business district's historic Business and Career library).  The other is the Pacific Branch library, the first of the historic Carnegie libraries to open in Brooklyn.

Why these two libraries? One in Brooklyn Heights bordering Brooklyn’s Downtown, the other right within close view of the “Barclays” arena (both are adjacent to the properties of ubiquitous Ratner mega-monopoly)?  This Tuesday night at a community meeting about the Pacific Branch library’s future organized by City Council Member Steve Levin, BPL spokesman Josh Nachowitz, BPL’s VP of Government and Community Relations confirmed what was written here in Noticing New York first, that the BPL’s priority is to move the highest valued real estate out the door first.
Thursday night of last week I went to a public committee meeting about the proposed sale of the Brooklyn Heights library.  You can read about it here: Controversial Brooklyn Heights library sale to proceed at ‘fast trot’ By Mary Frost, March 4, 2013, Brooklyn Daily Eagle.  Full disclosure: The Carolyn McIntyre who appears in that article representing the group Citizens Defending Libraries, which has so far gathered more than 8,000 signatures on a petition protesting the sale of this and other libraries in the city (together with their underfunding), is my wife.
`No filming here' Josh Nachowitz (with beard, top) tells cameraman- Click to enlarge
Last week’s Thursday night meeting was very different from the community meeting held by Steve Levin Tuesday.  For one thing, Mr. Nachowitz was very definitely running the Thursday meeting.  You could tell this because, when Citizens Defending Libraries was setting up to film the meeting, Mr. Nachowitz (with another assistant from the library) very firmly told the cameraman he was not permitting any filming.  He did this without consulting any of the other attendees at the meeting such as the representatives of the elected officials, the Brooklyn Heights Association or the Friends of the Library group.  (The meeting was being held theoretically at the suggestion of the Brooklyn Heights Association.)

Had the meeting been filmed you could have seen some “dwarf tossing” in action.  One of the things you could have seen was Dan Wiley, representative of Congresswoman Nydia Velázquez, coming in, sitting down and telling Mr. Nachowitz, “Now I’m sitting here thinking, why is Josh talking for the libraries?  I’m seeing EDC.  For me you’ll always be EDC.” [a lot of laughter from all around the table ensued] (EDC is the mayor’s real estate development agency where Mr. Nachowitz was working only a little while ago.)  Mr. Nachowitz guffawed and responded jovially, “We’ll get to that.  It’s all connected.”

Another way you could tell that Mr. Nachowitz was running the show was that, unlike the Pacific Branch community meeting (where Mr. Nachowitz answers were not exactly forthright or satisfactory), in this meeting Mr. Nachowitz wasn’t answering any questions he didn’t want to.  He was simply pocketing them literally and figuratively.  He didn’t answer oral questions he didn’t want to, saying they could answered in the future.  In addition, although the public was not allowed to participate except that Carolyn McIntyre was permitted to make an opening statement on behalf of the Citizens Defending Libraries and the 8,000 signature petition, the public was allowed to pass questions on cards to the representatives present on behalf of the elected officials.  These wound up mostly unanswered in Nachowitz’s pocket and at one point Nachowitz even intercepted and pocketed one such question card that Jim Vogel of State Senator Velmanette Montgomery’s office attempted to pass for information to Deborah Hallen of the Friends of the Library Group.

One of the questions Mr. Nachowitz pocketed without answering
One of the questions Mr. Nachowitz was not answering is whether it was envisioned that there would be any deed restrictions (enforceable by the BHA and the city) limiting the height of any new tower replacing the library to, say perhaps to the 40 stories that have been talked about internally by library officials. By contrast, Tuesday night Mr. Nachowitz was forced to address the subject of deed restrictions in connection with the sale of the Pacific Branch library at Councilman Levin’s community meeting.  Linda Johnson, the BPL CEO, recently spearheaded an article defending the sale that put out an estimation that the city (not the library system) might receive $100 million for the sell-off of the Brooklyn Heights library site.  It's possible that Johnson was just puffing to drum up support for a sale, but if that number were accurate it would translate into a very big building.  (With figures like this being thrown around, libraries still have to be significantly shrunk for lack of funds?- Under the BPL plan, the Brooklyn Heights Library will give up 62,000 square feet to get back perhaps only 15,000 square feet.)
Another pocketed and unanswered question

50-story Baccarat Hotel and luxury residence tower from the Daily News.  Click to enlarge (if you dare).
$100 million is a much larger figure than the $67.4 million for which the Manhattan site of the Donnell library was sold (to create a half-size library) in 2011 where they are building a 50-story Baccarat Hotel and luxury residence tower.  It’s a much larger price to pay for a demolition site (demolition involves a cost, just like building) than the $81 million being paid for the already existing and in very good condition historic fourteen-story Bossert Hotel in late 2012.

Bossert Hotel on Montague Street.  It goes all the way back to Remsen Street
At the beginning of the meeting Mr. Nachowitz, making a show of politeness, thanked Ms. McIntyre for her statement and said:
A lot of what you said and a lot of what’s in your petition really speaks to what we are trying to do here.  It’s actually hugely helpful and it’s part of the message we’ve been trying to deliver to the city for years and years and years.  We face huge budget cuts every year. . [Lost lots of funding etc.]. . The elected officials who sit at this table have been absolutely fantastic advocates for the library, especially the city council, the state legislature, everybody’s been terrific.  We wouldn’t be open at all in this building or anywhere else were it not for the unrelenting advocacy and support of the Brooklyn City Council delegation and the state legislative delegation.  So everybody who works for an elected official in this room deserves a huge round of applause for what they’ve done to support the library. . .

We would all love that your petition would be hugely successful and we’ll get the mayor and the administration to seek change the way they look at funding libraries.  It would solve a lot of this.  In the meantime we have to make some of the hard choices.. .  
In other words: Time to sell and shrink the libraries!

Throughout the rest of the meeting Mr. Nachowitz was very firm about the fact that the city was not going to be coming up with any money to obviate the need to sell off the libraries (although he did say the city could make funds available to help facilitate the library sales).

Mr. Nachowitz did come up with other bombshells during the evening about what city and library officials wanted to do to in terms of moving the sale of the library forward at a “fast trot”:
    •    Library officials are committed to inking a deal that hands the library to a developer before Bloomberg leaves office December 31st (Nachowitz: “coming up with a solution to redevelop this branch. . .  identify a development partner and hopefully enter into a contract with a development partner before the end of this administration”).  That means the that inked hand-off would come well before most of the promised public review.  And coming even before that, Nachowitz said that an RFP (Request For Proposals) specifying in detail exactly what the new library was to be like would precede the selection of the “development partner.” (Nachowitz saying the RFP would have “very clear language that the developer has to provide XYZ library.”)

    •    Library officials want to effect a more than 50% shutdown of the library operation almost immediately, come summer.   The BPL would "redeploy" library staff.  Again this would be well before the public could provide any input about whether it wants its library shrunk, hours reduced or the Business and Career library exiled.  The more than 50% shutdown would likely be permanent because the BPL has already announced its intent to shutdown the Business and Career library at Brooklyn Heights.  Doing so now, rather than waiting for public input, is an effective maneuver to banish the constituency that might otherwise advocate for the continued presence of the Business and Career library that the developer apparently doesn’t want in the building.  (Nachowitz said at the Pacific Branch meeting that the BPL was intent on finding out what the real estate market was interested in buying before deciding what specification the BPL would apply to a sale of that building.) 
As for those afterward-ensuing reviews which would essentially be made meaningless: When Mr. Nachowitz was explaining to people that now was not the time to ask questions he was assuring:
One other quick comment. . . Our vision is for this to be sort of a really nitty gritty working group with, you know, our elected officials and stakeholders in the community.  We welcome the public come and sit in on the meetings and understand what is going on.  We want to be as transparent and as up-front about the process and about the future of this building and about the future of library services in this community as we can possibly be.  There will be, as Rob [Rob Perris of community Board 2] can tell you, there will be ample opportunity at community board hearings, the ULURP process, the 34B process and RFP process.  There will be literally dozens and dozens and dozens of community meetings and hours of important testimony from the public.   
To reiterate: Josh Nachowitz wants almost all of that public review to be after a contract has put a developer in charge of the process and after the library is more than half closed and shrunk with the Business and Career library likely exiled and out of the picture.

What was the evening meeting of this "nitty gritty working group" about besides the unveiling of those bombshells?  It was pretty much what Josh Nachowitz wanted it to be about: the expression of frittering concerns about exactly how total the shutdown of the library starting that summer would be, what exact hours would be cut, and exactly how small a temporary replacement library would be when the building was torn down (maybe just 5,000 square feet).

The more than 50% shutdown was being called for because Nachowitz told the group there was unsolvable air conditioning problem.  Could people possibly find solutions to the air conditioning problem?  Mr. Nachowitz was dismissively shooting prospective solutions down like he was skeet shooting.  He was quick on the draw and there was an eerie certainty to his rapid responses delivered with a smile, including his admonition that it would be silly for anyone to raise private money to vanquish the problem.

It should be noted that whenever the libraries want to push a library out the door as a real estate deal they find air conditioning problems a handy complaint.  The reason Donnell Library needed to be closed, sold and shrunk?  An air conditioning problem! Why demolish the historic research book stack system at the Tilden Astor Central Reference Library at 42nd Street?   An air conditioning problem!  Sell the historic Pacific Branch? An air conditioning problem!  Want to sell off a lot of libraries in Brooklyn?  Announce that a lot of them have air conditioning problems and start closing them in the summer!     See: More libraries fall as heat nears 100 degrees, By Mary Frost, Brooklyn Daily Eagle, September 1, 2012 .
The BPL hasn’t released any of its bid documents respecting the Brooklyn Heights air conditioning problems, is stonewalling on the release of minutes pertaining to public meetings that relate to the the issue and there is every reason to believe that the cost and difficulty of fixing the air conditioning in the Brooklyn Heights branch is being grossly overstated.

As far as I am concerned if you were in the room that Thursday evening you were in one of three categories (I’ll be silent for now and let others speculate on their own as to who might believe to have been in which): Either you thought that everything going on was totally bogus and were intent on perpetrating the sham. . or you thought that everything going on was totally bogus, were outraged and were trying to figure out how to arrest the scam . . .  Or you really believed that you had been invited in for a convivial game of “dwarf tossing” and therefore thought you needed to do everything you could to see that dwarfs were tossed around with as little bodily injury and as few fatalities as possible.  That way you could be declared a hero for, in theory, minimizing the damage.

As all this sounds rather grim, I should perhaps finish up with some “dwarf tossing” video clips from the Lord of the Rings trilogy, but after having dwelt on this topic, you may not now find these scenes from the fantasy world of Middle Earth so amusing after all.

(Correction appended 04/23/2013: Previously this article stated that the estimation that the city might receive $100 million for the sell-off of the Brooklyn Heights library site was put out by BPL CEO Linda Johnson.  That estimation was put out by a real estate broker, not Linda Johnson herself, in an article focusing on arguments Johnson was making that the sale was a good thing: Brooklyn Public Library CEO Linda Johnson says downsized Brooklyn Heights branch will silence critics.)

Gimli - Toss me! Aragorn gives Gimli a bit of help!

Nobody Tosses A Dwarf!

Gimli toss

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