Lee Burchfield, director of the Louisville Free Public Library, addresses the Metro Council budget committee
Lee Burchfield, director of the Louisville Free Public Library, addresses the Metro Council budget committee. | Photo by Jeremy Chisenhall

The new director of the Louisville Free Public Library faced the ire of Metro Council members at a budget committee meeting on Wednesday, who pressed him on the reasoning for the early closure of the Middletown and Fern Creek branches next week before the council has approved a budget to do so.

Director Lee Burchfield also informed council members at the meeting that library branches would have their operating hours dramatically cut back and altered beginning July 1 — with the exception of the main downtown branch and three regional branches — though several members indicated they would try to prevent such changes from taking place by pushing for more library funding than Mayor Greg Fischer proposed in his 2019-2020 budget.

Fischer’s proposed budget, which made over $25 million in cuts, hit libraries particularly hard, aiming to save roughly $2.2 million by closing those two branches and reducing operating hours in the 14 neighborhood branches, plus eliminating library substitute positions, laying off 57 mostly part-time staffers and attriting 35 more positions.

The mayor and his administration have emphasized that they did not want to make such cuts, but were forced to by increased pension costs that contributed to a projected $35 million budget shortfall earlier this year and the Metro Council’s rejection of a proposal in March that would have created $20 million in new tax revenue.

The early and imminent closure of the Middletown branch — before the council had passed a budget approving those closures — came as a shock to area council members Anthony Piagentini and Marcus Winkler when they were informed of these moves by the mayor’s office on Tuesday afternoon.

Councilman Anthony Piagentini, R-19, at right, gestures in the council chamber as Councilman Markus Winkler, D-17, left, listens.
Councilman Markus Winkler, D-17, and Councilman Anthony Piagentini, R-19 | Photo by Jeremy Chisenhall

Piagentini and Winkler both pressed Burchfield on those early closures at the budget meeting on Wednesday, with library supporters filling the council chambers and expressing support for reversing the painful cuts in the mayor’s budget.

Burchfield said that the Fern Creek and Middletown branches were picked after the administration ranked the branches based on population density and nearby libraries in the area, usage and circulation, and whether the city owns the building or pays rent.

City budget director Daniel Frockt indicated that Fern Creek’s annual rent is $107,000 and Middletown’s is $445,000, though the latter facility is budgeted through a different department and also houses the headquarters for LMPD’s Eighth Division.

While the fact that the Fern Creek and Middletown branches pay rent for their space ultimately placed the two at the top of the administration’s rankings, Piagentini pointed out that the Middletown branch has the highest circulation totals of any branch in the current fiscal year.

Pressed by Councilman Kevin Kramer, R-11, on whether the Middletown branch could stay open in its current space if the council appropriates the funding to allow that in the budget it passes next month, Burchfield suggested that it was too late to change course, as the city already had notified the building’s owner that the library will soon move out of the space — despite that lease not running out for another year.

Councilman Bill Hollander, D-9, and Councilman Kevin Kramer, R-11, sit in the council chamber.
Councilman Bill Hollander, D-9, and Councilman Kevin Kramer, R-11 | Photo by Jeremy Chisenhall

Kramer urged Burchfield to reverse the early closures of Fern Creek and Middletown branches, because they are funded through June 30.

“Last year’s budget funded the library through this (fiscal) year,” said Kramer. “I’m begging you, please go to the mayor and make it clear to him that … the council seems resolute on keeping those libraries open at least until the end of this budget cycle.”

Noting that Metro Council added additional funding for the libraries budget last year beyond what Fischer proposed, Piagentini stated that the mayor has “a pattern of underfunding the libraries.”

Piagentini, along with Republican Councilmen Robin Engel, R-22; and Stuart Benson, R-20, who represent the Fern Creek area, issued a joint statement during the meeting expressing that “our libraries should be fully funded and they should not be shuttered to punish a portion of the community that has a long history of support and use of the libraries with astronomical population growth that will fuel even more demand, not less.”

Though Winkler was perhaps the most vocal advocate for the proposal to increase certain insurance premium taxes and lessen the extent of the cuts next year, Piagentini and his six Republican colleagues — plus eight Democratic council members — voted against it, arguing that the budget hole could be mostly filled by cutting waste and inefficiencies.

Councilman Bill Hollander, D-9, the chairman of the budget committee, repeated his familiar theme from budget meetings last year on the city’s chronic underfunding of libraries, noting that Louisville’s per capita funding of $24.71 for libraries is less than half of what Nashville spends and ranks 101st among Kentucky’s 120 counties.

Hollander, who sponsored and voted for the ordinance to raise new tax revenue, was the main force behind the council’s efforts to add $265,000 to libraries in last year’s budget beyond what Fischer originally proposed, which allowed the hiring of 20 additional employees to staff the new Northeast branch and newly renovated St. Matthews branch.

Hollander has taken particular aim at the harm that would be caused by the new operating hour schedule for the 14 neighborhood libraries that Burchfield unveiled at Wednesday’s meeting, which would not just cut hours but alternate openings and closing every weekend and shift weekday hours between daytime and evenings.

“Proposed (library) hours severely degrade service at EVERY Louisville library, except the regionals & Main,” tweeted Hollander early on Thursday. “A child needing to do homework at Shively? Out of luck at 6 pm Wed. and Thurs. and all day every other Fri. and Sat. Cuts have costs-and these are huge.”

Burchfield told council members that if additional funding were added to the library budget by Metro Council next month, he would prioritize restoring the current operating schedules of neighborhood branches over reopening the Middletown or Fern Creek branches.

Ashley Sims, a teen services library assistant at the Newburg branch and president of the library workers’ AFSCME Local 3425, told Insider Louisville after watching Wednesday’s meeting that she and other library workers were frustrated that council members spent more time on the branch closures than the harm that would be caused across the city by the reduction of hours.

“Our director was absolutely right in his focus on the reduction of hours across the board, because for so many libraries evening and weekend hours are absolutely fundamental,” said Sims. “But it would be ridiculous to expect staff to work nothing but those hours or all Saturdays without a significant increase in pay.”

Members of the Friends of the Louisville Free Public Library sit in council chambers.
Friends of the Louisville Free Public Library expressed support in the chamber during the budget meeting | Photo by Jeremy Chisenhall

Sims added that she and other library employees were frustrated by “fundamental misunderstandings” that some council members have about libraries, such as suggesting that libraries could be significantly staffed by volunteers and relying on circulation statistics as a measure of worth, which discounts the impact of programming and services.

“The hyperfocus the council had on the closing of Fern Creek and Middletown really missed the major point: Libraries are staffed by professionals, and those professionals cost money to employ,” wrote Sims in an email. “Mistreating those professionals in some of the ways that council members suggested, such as forcing them to work every Saturday of the year, reducing pay on Sundays, or forcing them to float from branch to branch in a wild carnival ride of filling gaps in schedules will lead to inadequate services and disenchanted staff that will find better places to work.”

The council must pass a budget for the next fiscal year at their meeting on June 25.

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Joe Sonka
Joe Sonka is a staff writer at Insider Louisville focusing on government, politics, education and public safety. He is a former news editor and staff writer at LEO Weekly and has also freelanced for The Nation and ThinkProgress. He has won first place awards from the Louisville Metro chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists in the categories of Health Reporting, Enterprise Reporting, Government/Politics, Minority/Women’s Affairs Reporting, Continuing Coverage and Best Blog. Email him at [email protected]