Government

Extend Cedar Rapids library hours, some council members say

The Cedar Rapids Public Library downtown branch on Wednesday, Feb. 5, 2014, in Cedar Rapids. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)
The Cedar Rapids Public Library downtown branch on Wednesday, Feb. 5, 2014, in Cedar Rapids. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)

CEDAR RAPIDS — Usage numbers at Cedar Rapids Public Library are down, spurring interest from several City Council members to find money to expand hours and days the library is open.

The library is seeking approval for a $6.1 million budget, of which $5.4 million comes from city coffers. It’s 4 percent bigger than the previous year but includes no new asks — although $500,000 for new circulation materials is budgeted under the city’s capital improvement program.

“That was definitely very different from any budget process that I have been through,” Library Director Dara Schmidt said on Thursday. “Our ask was to maintain the current levels of access and services. It’s not been my experience where they said, Maybe you should be asking us for more.”

She added that she will provide additional information to help policymakers make an informed decision. The budget is expected to be approved in March, and go into effect July 1.

The library eliminated 20 hours of service — about 15 percent of its hours of operation — to balance the budget in 2016. This included closing an hour earlier in the evenings (eight hours) and eliminating Saturdays at the westside Ladd Library (eight hours) and Sundays at the main downtown location (four hours).

The following usage categories are down when comparing fiscal 2016 to fiscal 2017.

l Meeting room use dropped 13 percent, from 118,191 to 102,663.

l Library circulation decreased 7 percent, from 1,102,808 to 1,027,369.

l Visitors declined 7 percent, from 656,139 to 609,297.

l Computer use declined 1 percent, from 107,727 to 106,473.

l Program attendance fell 6 percent, from 51,416 to 47,994.

The reductions also lead to less revenue, such as from room rentals for big events or events outside of normal hours, and from patrons’ late fines, Schmidt said. Usage numbers have dropped less than the reduction in hours, so they view the numbers as positive, Schmidt said.

“Things are absolutely down and pretty much down in all major things we measure,” Schmidt told the City Council on Wednesday during a discussion of the fiscal 2019 budget. “We are always trying to figure out which variable we can attribute those things to and obviously we believe the reduction in hours has caused some of that.”

Hearing the challenges, council members said they wanted to find a way to increase access.

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“I would suggest we look at some kind of line item, some kind of spending,” council member Dale Todd said, calling to the library a community hub and destination. “I don’t know what that number would be.”

Schmidt estimated it would cost $75,000 to reopen on Sundays downtown, $250,000 to reopen on Saturdays at Ladd, and $350,000 in total to restore all the hours. Ladd library hours are more expensive because they would need to add staff to cover it, Schmidt said.

“Yes, I’m in favor of finding the funds to have the libraries open on Saturdays and Sundays,” Mayor Brad Hart said on Thursday. “If we can only do one, I would open the downtown library on Saturday and Sunday, possibly keeping Ladd open only on one day each weekend.”

Hart said he needs more information, but hopes to confirm the cost and “then try to find a way to make it happen.”

Voters rejected a bond referendum, by a 55-45 percent margin, in 2015 to increase the library levy by 27 cents to stabilize funding and maintain a full level of service at both locations, leading to the reduction in hours.

Then-Mayor Ron Corbett also floated a proposal to raise property taxes 3 cents per year for five years earmarked for the library. But that idea was met with resistance and abandoned.

Council member Ann Poe said lost hours could be phased back in over a couple fiscal years. Council member Tyler Olson said he would be interested in a discussion to “find out exactly what kind of budget impact it would have.”

l Comments: (319) 339-3177; brian.morelli@thegazette.com

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