Thursday, August 13, 2015

Was Library Administration Officials’ Campaign For Restoration of Library Funding Done With Great Fanfare A Victory? No. Was It Even A Great Campaign? No.

Caption to this "We Did It" photo sent by the NYPL: "You asked them to Invest in Libraries-and they did! Pictured, from left to right: Libraries Sub-Committee Chair Costa Constantinides, Finance Committee Chair Julissa Ferreras, Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, and Majority Leader Jimmy Van Bramer"-  And what "did" they do?
There had been so much fanfare about it all and then, late Monday night, June 22, 2015, the public got news on the results of one of the most major campaigns for restoration of library funding that anyone can remember.  The campaign NYC Library administration officials ran, aimed at the de Blasio administration, was for restoration of progressive annual cuts implemented by the Bloomberg administration going back to 2008.  Was the campaign a success?: It was announced that libraries would receive an additional approximately $40 million* "for all branches operating within the five boroughs" over what had been in the "the mayor's office original plan to significantly cut library funding in next year's budget.". . .  Was the campaign even a good one?

Sadly, the answer to both these questions is NO!
(* Introductory background note on the figures:  Perhaps it's indicative of just how casually a few paltry million is thought of in the scheme of things, but the restoration of funds was variously reported and discussed as being in the amount of $39 million, and alternatively, without explanation, in the amount of $43 million.  Initially, the New York Times reported the restoration amount to be $39 million on June 22, 2015.  Similarly, $39 million is what was discussed as the figure from budget negotiators on June 24, 2015 on the Brian Lehrer show.  A City Council press release announcing the restored funds on June 26, 2015 oscillates, stating the restored figure to keep branches open as $39 million in one place, and $43 million in another.  Ultimately, library PR started consistently using the $43 million, which my discussions with the NYC Independent Budget Office indicate is probably the correct number.  A recent New York Times article by Ginia Bellafante that sought to convey with emphasis that libraries that might be sold off have gotten a lot of money recently stated the figure to be $46 million, but that was probably a typo or a miscommunication between Ms. Bellafante and the library administration spokespeople she was communicating with. . . . However, dirty little secret, the actual increase to funding this 2016 funding year over the prior funding year is just $35 million, the statement of the greater $43 million figure is because de Balsio was actually proposing to cut funding from the previous year's level.)
It Hasn't Been Reported, But A Confused Public Needs To Know. . . 

These questions were asked of me by a reporter in connection with an article that might have been written.  Time has passed and that article has yet to be written so I think it's time to write it myself.  Full disclosure: The reporter contacted me because I an a co-founder of Citizens Defending Libraries, an organization that has been fighting for adequate funding for New York City Libraries, one reason being that we don't want underfunding of our city's heavily used libraries to be used as an excuse to sell them off.

Based on what has been written and appeared in the news media to date, the public would be pretty confused about what happened, including being confused by the fact the campaign was declared a victory and the PR pushed out by by library administration officials PR that has led to goofy, misleading statements like this one in the Times: "The city’s 2016 budget includes the largest increase in operating and capital funding for libraries in the city’s history."

In reality, failing to get a restoration of the Bloomberg cuts they identified, library administration officials got $22 million less funding for libraries from Mayor de Blasio on the operating side than they asked for and they should have been asking for even more money overall.  The Bloomberg administration's intentional deferral of capital expenditures for the libraries has not been adequately addressed so that needed repairs for libraries will not be made and this lack of funding will be cited as a reason to sell off significant library assets at bargain basement prices.

Is it truly fair to say library administration officials ran an ineffective campaign for the restoration of library funding? How could it be that when, with the campaign that they ran, every major New York City daily editorialized that proper funding to the city's libraries should be restored: The New York Times, the New York Post, the Daily News, The Observer, AM New York (as a key tool to narrow the city's income gap), and the Staten Island Advance?  Good points were made by all getting important messages out.  For instance, the Times editorial cited its columnist Jim Dwyer who had pointed out that in the last 8 years at least $620 million has been spent on just three sports arenas, (the Ratner/Prokhorov "Barclays" arena included) and that this amount was 1.37 times the amount spent on libraries serving seven times as many users.

Said the New York Times editorial while citing that Dwyer piece:
Mr. de Blasio leads a city where the corporate and entertainment infrastructure are seldom neglected. Citi Field, Yankee Stadium and the Barclays Center, to name just three, are beneficiaries of hundreds of millions of dollars in taxpayer funds . .  while schools and libraries languish.
The reason it is fair to say that the campaign was actually not the campaign that it needed to be is that the big picture of what went on is that the fight for more library funding was fundamentally flawed: It was hamstrung by starting out not asking for enough, asking essentially only for a compromise . . .  Worse: The campaign did not clearly state what was at stake.  Doing so would have been important to rally the public.  . .    When your starting position is to ask for what is only a weak compromise what you are likely to get, and what we got, was a compromise on that requested compromise.

Libraries have always had to fight for funding, but we used to fight for funding to enlarge our libraries as we were doing through to the end of the Giuliani administration and before him under Dinkins.  Now the money we need is so that there isn't an excuse to sell off in our libraries in a weird program of self-cannibalizing funding that sacrifices and drastically reduces our overall assets, selling libraries like Donnell, the 34th Street Science, Industry and Business Library (SIBL) and Brooklyn Heights for a fraction of their value.

Libraries are one of the top priorities of the public.  They cost the merest fraction of the budget to fund.  Usage is way up.  They supplement what we spend on schools and more than pay for themselves economically although their real value in terms of democracy, society and culture is fuller than that.

The public absolutely does not want libraries underfunded and the public certainly does not want to face the doomsday scenario that libraries are so underfunded that the public will be told that unrepaired libraries need to be sold off and shrunk.  The funding campaign waged by the library administration officials did not ask for the amount of money we need so there will be no excuse to sell off libraries like SIBL or the Brooklyn Heights central destination library in Downtown Brooklyn.  The library administration officials' campaign did not tell the public that without proper funding we would be selling our libraries.  Any real threat like this should've been trumpeted!  It wasn't and most of the public still aren't aware libraries are threatened by such sales.

Why did library administration officials hold back and not make the case for funding sufficient so that libraries won't be sold?:  These very same library administration officials are pushing these real estate deals, which are, in fact, juicy handouts to developers.  This amounts to a perverse incentive to underfund libraries. .

. . .  The current level of underfunding began after Bloomberg secured his third term and as plans to sell and shrink libraries, citing underfunding as an excuse, were launched.

Listen To Young Adult Fiction Writer Judy Blume
The following was from an April 25, 2015 “Invest In Libraries” campaign email, “Are you there Mr. Mayor? It's Me, Judy Blume,” sent out by the Libraries. .  In this case, for purposes of the email, the words were put in the mouth of author Judy Blume asking New Yorkers to sign a letter to Mayor de Blasio asking for more funding (emphasis supplied):
Librarians are the protectors of intellectual freedom. They are the defenders of books and imagination and thought. They are on the front lines, working every day to improve literacy, to close the digital divide, and to spark creativity in everyone who walks through their doors.

Despite this role, NYC libraries have been cut $65 million in annual operating funds since 2008. They are down hours and about 1,000 staff members. If that funding was restored to the City's three library systems, the total budget for public libraries would be less than half of one percent of the total City budget. Seems like a no-brainer to me.

Take a moment. Literally just about 30 seconds. Tell Mayor de Blasio and the City Council that our libraries are worth more.

Additionally, library buildings themselves are not up to par. The City's 217 branches need $1.4 billion worth of maintenance and renovations over 10 years. They leak. They are overcrowded. They don't have enough outlets. Really? This is not acceptable.
There's nothing to disagree with here.  And it's eloquent.  But where is the mention that without proper funding major libraries, significant capital assets will be sold?

Next, notice that the Blume email observes that since 2008 (when Bloomberg was launching library sales plans) library operating funding has been cut $65 million.  Wouldn't you imagine that anything less than a restoration of those requested $65 million in funds would be a defeat?  One would think so, but although the revised budget de Blasio agreed to restored significantly less everyone involved in the ineffective campaign was willing to proclaim victory as if the public wouldn't notice the still missing funds.  And the public, being told that a victory had been achieved might, indeed neglect to remember the figures in the Judy Blume email.

Declarations of Victory- Really?

Here is a June 30, 2015 email (Subject: "Subject: Major Victory for NYC Libraries!") from the NYC Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito declaring a victory in the library funding campaign fight:
In case you missed the good news, this past week the New York City Council adopted a balanced, fiscally responsible budget for Fiscal Year 2016  that includes $43 million in funding for our city's libraries.  

With this funding, branches across all three library systems – the Brooklyn Public Library,  the Queens Library,  and the New York Public Library (which serves Manhattan, the Bronx and Staten Island) – will be able to stay open six days a week!

We also successfully persuaded the Mayor to commit to a $300 million 10-year capital plan to help maintain and revitalize these vital institutions.

Our thanks to you and everyone else who helped make these important victories possible!
Here is a similar June 24, 2015 email declaration of victory sent out by Brooklyn Public Library president Linda E. Johnson:
Dear Library Supporter,
This is a great week for Brooklyn Public Library.

On Monday, we learned that Mayor de Blasio and the New York City Council have reached an agreement to increase funding for public libraries in the City’s budget.

Here from NYPL President Tony Marx’s June 30, 2015 “Big win for NYC's libraries” (alternately to others it went to the same day “The big news, and a big thank you”) with a huge “We Did It!” banner:
 New Yorkers spoke out. And City leaders listened.

We're thrilled to report that the Mayor and the City Council announced their agreement on the budget: The City will increase libraries' operating budget by $43 million. We'll also see a significant increase in the budget for taking care of our aging buildings.

This is the largest single increase of operating funds in our history and will allow for 6-day service across the city, plus more books, programs, and increased research library services.

    * * * *

We are so grateful to Mayor de Blasio, City Council Speaker Mark-Viverito, Council Finance Chair Ferreras, Majority Leader and Cultural Affairs Chair Van Bramer, Sub-Committee on Libraries Chair Constantinides, incoming Libraries Chair Andy King, and all the members of the Council for this historic increase, which provides great momentum for the future.

    * * * *

We at the Library have been honored to have been a part of this campaign, which showcased the best of New York.

"We Did It!"  Did What?

The banner said “We Did It!”   Whether that's true all depends on what your definition of "It" is.

If "It" means that New York City libraries will continue to be underfunded, then they did "It."

If "It" means that New York City library administration officials will proclaim that library funding is now at a level so low that libraries need to sold and shrunk as a result, then they did "It."

If "It" means that all of the above can be true ans still let library administration officials, the New York City Council and the mayor proclaim this "the largest single increase of operating funds in our history," then they did "It."

This is the "It" that these officials apparently think means that they can tell the world they ran a great campaign even while libraries are underfunded and in jeopardy of sale, a sort of sweet spot where they probably expect much of the public will be lulled into thinking there is no longer anything to be on guard against, that its interests were vigilantly protected. . .  This sweet spot was steered into almost as if by magic.  Were smoke and mirrors involved?

What enables the proclamation that this is this "the largest single increase of operating funds in our history"?  Partly it's a budget dance.  The actual increase to funding this 2016 funding year over the prior funding year is really just $35 million.  The statements describing the increase to be $43 million instead is because Mayor de Blasio was actually proposing in his original executive budget this year to cut funding from the previous year's level.

Last year, the first year for which Mr. de Blasio was in office to propose a budget for libraries, City Council members in the their budget hearings gleefully announced that with Democrat de Blasio in office the "budget dance" was over.  The "budget dance" engaged in routinely and cynically by Bloomberg involved gaming ploys to distract attention and energy by proposing cuts to the public's beloved libraries that the Bloomberg administration never, ever intended to fully implement and then letting the city council fight and take credit for reducing them.  The good news that first de Blasio budget year was that the dance was theoretically over and that de Blasio somewhat increased library funding over the prior year's Bloomberg budget, even though he by no means made up for all the past Bloomberg cuts.*
(*  That year de Blsio also derailed the NYPL's central library plan, cutting off its funding, although, somewhat inconsistently, he did not simultaneously recapture for other uses plus city oversight and scrutiny the $150 million in city money that had been associated with it.)  
 This year during budget hearings the City Council members were forced to acknowledge that the "budget dance" was back with City Council member Jimmy Van Bramer stating that what they were fighting for this year was not a "restoration" of funds but a "restoration of a restoration" of funds.

Library Administration Officials Commanded Significant Resources to Hit This “We Did It!”  Sweet Spot

Library administration officials and those with them in the lead on this campaign were able to commandeer significant resources with many like Judy Blume, significant personages appropriately eager to fight for the libraries.  One would hope that Ms. Blume and these others would consider that their contributions to the fight were well used.

For instance, on  June 8. 2015, the NYPL ran and ad in the New York Times with a list of supporters which included really big names like Robert A. Caro  Malcolm Gladwell, and Tony Kushner.  At the bottom of the page it said the "Advertisement paid for by NYPL Board of Trustees Chair Evan R, Chesler and NYPL Executive Committee Chair Abby S. Milstein."  Ms. Milstein is from the Milstein real estate family.

Others signing the advertisement statement that "The world's capital of opportunity deserves better" included: Vincent Alvarez, Kurt Andersen, Paul Auster, Rabbi Andy Bachman, Mikhail Baryshnikov, Judy Blume, Andy Borowitz, Phoebe Boyer, Rabbi Angela W. Buchdahl, David Byrne, Geoffrey Canada, Graydon Carter, Mario Cilento, Vin Cipolla, Edwidge Danticat, His Eminence Archbishop Demetrios of America, Junot Díaz, E. L. Doctorow, Jennifer Egan, Héctor Figueroa, Reverend Floyd H. Flake, Jonathan Franzen, Neil Gaiman, Henry Garrido, William Gibson, Elizabeth Gilbert, Adam Gopnik, Kim Gordon, Annette Gordon-Reed, Philip Gourevitch, Vartan Gregorian, George Gresham, Ethan Hawke, John Hockenberry, Jenny Holzer, Siri Hustvedt, Sherrilyn Ifill, Walter Isaacson, Jennifer Jones Austin, Maira Kalman, Imam Khalid Latif, Paul LeClerc, John Legend, Jonathan Lethem, David Levering Lewis, James McBride, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Toni Morrison, David Nasaw, Victor S. Navasky, Harry Nespoli, James Patterson, Darryl Pinckney, Richard Price, Francine Prose, Ruth Reichl, Anthony D. Romero, Oliver Sacks, Stacy Schiff, Anna Deavere Smith, Colm Tóibín, Javier Valdés, Reverend Michael A.Walrond, Jr., Tom Wolfe, Jacqueline Woodson, Sheena Wright, Tim Wu.

Notably, this list includes individuals who, like Citizens Defending Libraries, were plaintiffs in lawsuits against the NYPL to halt the NYPL's Central Library Plan, an ill considered real estate boondoggle involving library space shrinkage and library sell-offs: David Levering Lewis and David Nasaw.  Similarly, it includes now recently deceased E. L. Doctorow (a professor of mine at Sarah Lawrence) who supported the Committee to Save the New York Public Library (of which I am also a part and which has coordinated with Citizens Defending Libraries) joining in criticism of that Central Library Plan.  Tim Wu, last on the list, was candidate for Lieutenant Governor of New York on the ticket with Zephyr Teachout who held a rally with Citizens Defending Libraries decrying the library sell-offs and sales on the steps of the 42nd Street Central Reference Library during their campaign.

The energy of all these individuals wound up supporting a campaign that steered into falling short of the mark, and consequently the prospect of turning libraries into real estate deals. What if some of these individuals could, alternatively, have put their energy into a campaign with higher standards and demanding a better deal for the public?

In the strange bedfellows department, some of the individuals in this long list, former NYPL president Paul LeClerc and Muncipal Art Society president Vin Cipolla were involved with launching or supporting library sell-offs and shrinkage, individuals who would not have wanted this grand campaign to steer a different course.

Celebratory Endorsement While Underfunding Persists

Still others were similarly broadcasting to the public that they were endorsingly enthusiastic about this sweet spot that had been hit.

Brad Lander, who has been working hard to turn libraries into real estate deals for a number of years now, emailed his constituents ( 6/26/2015):
“I am especially excited about . . . six-day service at all our public libraries: Thanks to an additional $43 million, every public library across NYC will be open 6 days a week. This has long been one of my priorities – and it was made possible this year by an incredible “Invest in Libraries” campaign that involved many of you.”
From Urban Liberians Units "Happy Dance" post about the level of funding for the libraries
Urban Librarians Unite is a group that was formed contemporaneously with the launching of the library sales and which has managed to find itself on the supporting side of all the proposed variations of library sales that have materialized since then, posted, on July 29, 2015, its "Library Budget Happy Dance FY16":
It’s starting to feel real now. In June, libraries in NYC received an additional 43 million dollars in operating funding, something we have been fighting for for 6 years. . . .  

. . .   It’s completely awesome and a little bit overwhelming, but real. Definitely real.
We did it. YOU did it. Thank you to all the letter writers, elected official callers, 24 hour read in readers, postcard collectors, researchers, petition signers and city council testifiers. You were so loud that libraries couldn’t be ignored.
Underfunding of Libraries Now Cited As Reason to Sell Them

Has the de Blasio administration restored New York City library funding to anything near sufficient levels? On Wednesday July 15, 2015, a community board in Brooklyn, Community Board 2, voted to sell off and shrink down to just one-third size a major destination library in burgeoning downtown Brooklyn, the Brooklyn Heights Library, for a very low price.  That library had not long ago, in October 1993, under a previous administration, the Dinkins administration, been greatly expanded and completely upgraded at with city funding reflecting appreciable public expense and sacrifice. . .

. . . .The reason for the sale of this public asset worth probably $120 million or more to net the city selling it significantly less than $40 million?: The community board said there was no other alternative to address the lack of city funding.  One of the CB2 board members pushing for the sale and shrinkage of the library, William Flounoy, chairperson of the Economic Development and Employment Committee, speaking of repairs (the air conditioning) that haven't been made at the library said"There's no money in the system to maintain it."

Meanwhile, another major library, the Science, Industry and Business Library, built at considerable expense ($100 million) when it opened in 1996 (also with a special focus on business and career functions) is similarly on the sales block for the same reasons.

Must the answer be to now sell and shrink libraries?  In a Brooklyn Magazine article about how in the aftermath of the proclaimed funding victory capital needs of the libraries still remain desperately unmet, Christian Zabriskie, Executive Director of Urban Librarians Unite, says selling the Brooklyn Heights Library (probably SIBL and others too) is the "pragmatic" thing to do because "libraries don’t really have any assets other than the buildings,” as if the purpose of publicly paid for libraries is to pay financial tribute or spin off assets.  Libraries are long-term capital assets that took years to build and acquire.  Rather than rush, wouldn't it be better to wait and continue the fight for restoration of the small amount of funds needed?  Remember Ms. Judy Blume's informing us above that, "If that funding was restored to the City's three library systems, the total budget for public libraries would be less than half of one percent of the total City budget.". . .

. . .  that "less than half of one percent" is what the entire budget would be, not the still missing fractions needed to end de Blasio's carry-ever of the the Bloomberg cuts.

In a recent Ginia Bellafante New York Times article promoting the sale and "redevelopment" of the Heights and other libraries, Zabriskie ridicules the idea that there could be such alternatives: "We would obviously prefer it if buildings weren’t sold off. But it’s the real world. I’d rather ride a unicorn to work, but I can’t.”   This ridicule about the possibility of adequate funding comes from the man that Urban Librarians Unite, in its "Happy Dance" post about funding touts "just never freaking stopped" when it came to library advocacy?

The Underfunding Is Recent, Peculiar To the Bloomberg and de Blasio Adminstartions

The Brooklyn Magazine article quotes David Woloch, Executive Vice President of the BPL who says that in Brooklyn alone, capital needs are a “problem that has been growing for a really long time, for decades” making the current funding problems seem perhaps all the more insurmountable.  But this is disingenuous.  Going just one `decade' back would take us to 2005, and Bloomberg's NYC and BPL deferrals of capital repair expenditures doesn't commence until November of 2008, although the plans to sell and shrink libraries that occasioned them may well go back to 2005. . .  Going back two 'decades' gets us to 1995, the era when under Dinkins and Giuliani we were enlarging and upgrading libraries, including the Brooklyn Heights Library.

Giuliani's expansions continued to the end of his administration carrying over into the first years of the Bloomberg administration that started January 1, 2002.

Mr. Woloch once worked at the city department of transportation for Iris Weinshall, senator Schumer's wife, who now as COO at the NYPL is selling off SIBL, completed as part of a major publicly paid for expansion in 1996.    

Selling Libraries Is Amounts To Public Loss, Not Generation of Funds For the Public

Providing another disingenuous rationale for selling off the Brooklyn Heights library Mr. Woloch and Mr. Zabriskie have advanced the idea that (ignoring any associated public losses), according to Zabriskie, the sale "will generate revenue to repair other branches in lower income areas. The sale of this one library will benefit many."

In point of fact, the money from any sale goes back to the city, not the library.  Although the BPL is, in connection with the proposed Heights Library sale, moving four identified libraries to the head of its list for city capital repair funding of some of their needed repairs there is no guarantee that after whatever lobbying and beseeching is done money will come back to the libraries after this bird-in-the-hand asset is sacrificed and, in the end, there is no way to track things through to show this to have been the case.  Further, some would say the BPL moving these four libraries to the head of the list is just a cynical political move to buy support from key local elected officials at the unfair expanse of other libraries equally or in greater need of funding.

Lastly, although the sale will "gross" a $52 million price for the city and the BPL it has many attendant expenses the city and BPL will have to pay for, including, but not limited to, $16+ million to outfit the new much smaller replacement and a yet to be determined or revealed amount, probably again many millions, to cram shifted functions into the Grand Army Plaza where no additional space will be created to accommodate them.  The BPL has not opened up its books on this, but in the end, the sale could net close to or less than zero.

Zabriskie also invokes his own "library science" analysis to justify his conclusion its a good idea to sell and shrink the Heights library.  I am not a librarian and I don't play one on TV, but given the greater expense of digital books and the fact that the public prefers physical books we would beg to take issue with Zabriskie's expression of his professional opinion on this matter.

Was the campaign for restoration of library funds a successful campaign?  No. Neither that, nor a good one.  As the most recent Citizens Defending Libraries petition to Mayor de Blasio (Mayor de Blasio: Rescue Our Libraries from Developer Destruction) states:
Selling irreplaceable public assets at a time of increased use and city wealth is unjust, shortsighted, and harmful to our prosperity. These plans that undermine democracy, decrease opportunity, and escalate economic and political inequality, should be rejected by those we have elected to pursue better, more equitable, policies.
The campaign has left us exactly there, in a place where we are selling those precious assets.  Only those who think that this is a good thing or believe that this was legitimately the intent of the campaign should believe that it was a good and successful one.

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