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Proposed Portland library branch closings spark neighborhood opposition; city could reduce funding

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Proposed Portland library branch closings spark neighborhood opposition; city could reduce funding

PORTLAND — A Portland Public Library plan to close three branches and instead work with community groups to create mobile library services has come under fire from residents of the neighborhoods that would lose their branches.

Some city councilors are also suggesting that the library's approximately $3.1 million budget allocation be reduced because of the planned branch closings.

The library's fiscal 2011 budget, which does not seek an increase in funding from the city, proposes closing its branches in the West End, the East End and in Riverton. The closings would save the library about $350,000, which it proposes to spend on contractual obligations, operating costs and expanded hours at the main library on Monument Square.

The Burbank and Peaks Island branches would remain open.

"The funds are not there," library Executive Director Steve Podgajny said. "We're out of options."

The 2011 fiscal year would be the third in a row that the library's funding remains unchanged. When library trustees proposed closing the Reiche Branch in the West End two years ago, the neighborhood organization there protested and the branch was eventually spared.

In response to the proposed closure this year, West End residents have set up a website, readersofreiche.wordpress.com, where supporters can post testimonials.

The Munjoy Hill Neighborhood Organization sent a letter to city councilors and library trustees April 16 expressing its dismay with the plan, and in particular the closing of the branch at the East End Community School.

The MHNO said libraryofficials misled residents into believing the branches were safe two years ago when they said one of the library's guiding principles is to "maintain and develop a strong neighborhood presence through whatever appropriate means in as many neighborhoods as possible."

Podgajny, though, said that moving toward a "portable" library mode, and working in collaboration with community organizations, including the Portland Housing Authority and LearningWorks, will allow the library to reach neighborhoods where it currently does not have any presence.

"We can work with other people to deliver services," Podgajny said. "But we're not the community center and we can't be asked to play that role."

Podgajny said he anticipates the library will send staff and resources out to various community centers and organizations in the city to facilitate collaboration.

"We need to build on things we already do," he said, for example, having drop-off locations for library materials people order online.

Podgajny said he expects the main library branch can absorb users from Reiche and Munjoy Hill. Riverton, he said, concerns him most because the branch has a lot of activity.

"There's also a sense of it being on the edge of the city," Podgajny said. He said he expects some of those users will go to Burbank.

He said the library is working with the Portland Housing Authority to develop programs at the community center in Riverton.

In 2009, about 61,000 items were borrowed from the Riverton Branch, nearly 25,000 from the Reiche Branch, and about 36,700 from Peaks Island. The Burbank branch loaned about 255,000 items. The Munjoy branch loaned nearly 88,500 items, but for much of the year the children's collection was located there while renovation were performed at the main library. In 2008, the lending total at Munjoy was under 33,000.

The city allocation covers a little more than 80 percent of the library's entire budget. The rest comes from Cumberland County, the state and fundraising. The city does not have a say over how the library spends its money; those decisions rest with a Board of Trustees, which includes people who do not live in Portland.

Councilor John Anton, who serves on the Finance Committee, said this week that he will ask City Manager Joe Gray to review the proposed library budget in context of the closures. He said he is not recommending the budget be cut by the entire amount the libraries stand to save by closing branches. Instead, he is suggesting the proposal be reviewed in light of increased costs and funding for the new neighborhood initiative.

Podgajny, though, said the 2011 budget was created without funding for the three branches included.

"If it's cut, we're going to have to go toward cuts at other locations," he said.

Anton also said he believes the library needs to re-examine its assumption that the city will continue to pay 80 percent of its annual operating budget in the future.

The Finance Committee meets Thursday, April 22, at 7 p.m. in room 209 at City Hall. At that meeting the committee will make recommendations to the city manager for cuts to the proposed $196 million municipal budget.

Kate Bucklin can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 106 or kbucklin@theforecaster.net