City Council holds hearing on capital construction needs of New York City’s public libraries

In this testimony before a City Council hearing held on Monday, September 30th, Revson’s president Julie Sandorf makes a case for why the capital funding process for New York City’s public libraries should be reformed.

“Good Afternoon. My nameis Julie Sandorf and I am the President of the Charles H. Revson Foundation. Iwant to thank Chairman Van Bramer and Chairman Gentile for inviting me to speakto you today.

The Revson Foundationoperates a variety of grant programs in the areas of Urban Affairs, Education,Biomedical Research, and Jewish Life, and some of the most innovative andfar-reaching projects we have funded in New York City have revolved aroundpublic libraries. When Lincoln Center wanted to extend its world-class arts andculture beyond its campus, we funded performances in branch libraries acrossQueens. And starting in January, both the Queens and Brooklyn systems, inpartnership with Lincoln Center, will be screening HD productions of LincolnCenter performances, representing a performing arts partnership withoutprecedent anywhere in the world. When ReServe was founded to pair retiredprofessionals with nonprofit organizations, one of the most meaningful ways toutilize the expertise of older adults was to support Queens Library’s communityservice programs. Whether the mission is technology, arts and culture,education, senior services, employment, or immigrant services, the unparalleledgeographic and programmatic breadth of New York City’s public libraries putthem in a unique position to form successful and mutually beneficialpartnerships with a wide range of institutions and agencies across the City.

From the newly revampedDepartment of Outreach at Brooklyn Public Library, to Queens Library’sinteractive online job-readiness assessment software, to New York PublicLibrary’s national leadership on the issue of e-books, New York City’slibraries are at the forefront of organizational and technological innovationsaimed at expanding access to resources to as many New Yorkers as possible, andthe Revson Foundation has been privileged to support these efforts.

Some have argued thatin the digital age of ipads and e-books, no one uses the public libraryanymore. However, when we look at the data, we see that the opposite is true.According to the Center for an Urban Future’s Branches of Opportunity report, in 2011, the city’s 206 branchlibraries greeted over 40.5 million visitors, which is more than all of thecity’s professional sports teams and major cultural institutions combined. Ourpublic libraries are not only being used by millions of New Yorkers, but usagehas reached record levels. Over the past decade, our city’s libraries have seena 27 percent increase in program offerings, a 40 percent increase in programattendance, and a 59 percent increase in circulation. To put that intoperspective, New York City’s libraries rank in the top 10 in the country ineach of these categories.

The libraries haveaccomplished this while simultaneously having had their budgets cut by thecity. Collectively, New York City’s libraries fail to make the top ten in termsof local government funding and average hours of service per week when comparedto other large U.S. cities. Boston, Seattle, Chicago, Houston, and evenDetroit’s libraries are open more hours per week on average than our city’slibraries. Only 8 branches in all of New York City are open on Sundays. This is a waste of precious resources andreal estate, but without a viable financial strategy from the city, ourlibraries are being forced to make impossible choices. Given their criticalimportance, locked library doors seem penny wise and pound foolish.

The city has aninvaluable resource in the public libraries; located in nearly everyneighborhood and trusted by all. In order to most effectively use theseincredible community assets, libraries must be open more hours. In fact, whenthe great philanthropist Andrew Carnegie built over 100 branch libraries acrossall five boroughs, the City of New York signed the Carnegie Compact, whichlegally obligated it to keep the libraries open six days a week from at leastnine in the morning to nine at night.

However, currently, thecity’s public libraries are, on average, open only 43 hours per week. Can youimagine how many more people would be able to access the vast resources andprograms of the library if the branches were open every evening? Or during theweekends? Just think of the recent immigrant who works all day, but desperatelyneeds to improve her English language skills. Or of the parents who can neverbe home in time to take their son or daughter to the library to pick out books;or the student living in a tiny apartment with five other people, looking for aquiet place to study for a test on a Sunday afternoon. Libraries are theinstitutions that touch the lives of New Yorkers on a daily basis. Anadditional $100 million in city operating funds would allow the libraries tostay open an average of 60 hours per week and position them to become the mostutilized public libraries in the country.

Equally as important askeeping the libraries open a greater number of hours is what we are focused ontoday, the libraries’ capital needs. As many of you know, the capital fundingprocess is highly discretionary and byzantine, to put it mildly. The librariesdo not have a stable capital budget from which to maintain and upgrade theirfacilities and are heavily reliant on city council discretionary funds to subsidizetheir capital needs.

Consequently, branchesacross the city are suffering from decades of neglect and underinvestment. Thecity’s three public library systems have over $1.5 billion in constructionneeds, including hundreds of millions in deferred maintenance costs. This isevident when you walk into branches where there is no air-conditioning orelevator. In Brooklyn alone, the average branch is more than 60 years old andthere are 18 Carnegie branches that were built more than 90 years ago.Brooklyn’s libraries have more than $300 million in outstanding maintenanceneeds.

Since branch libraries dependlargely on accumulating funds from council members and borough presidents torepair, renovate, or build a new library, it can take years to raise enoughmoney to even begin a capital project. In most cases, we are not talking aboutextravagant upgrades; these capital projects include some of the most basicinfrastructure needs, such as fixing leaking roofs, heating systems, and brokenelevators. These issues affect how New Yorkers experience and access theirlibraries every day. All the while, the physical problems grow worse and buildingand construction costs continue to rise.

Every year thesenecessary repairs are taking money from the libraries’ already strappedoperating budgets. Year in and year out, all three systems are forced to useoperating funds to address repairs that should be part of the capital funding process.These funds, totaling approximately 3.6 million dollars this year, could beused to fund the libraries’ Pre-K literacy programs or workshops forjob-seekers; instead they are being used to patch the roof. Programming, books,and hours shouldn’t be at the expense of building maintenance or vice-versa.

In fact, improvedbuilding conditions and renovated space contribute significantly to programsuccess and library usage overall. The numbers speak for themselves: the HighBridge branch in the Bronx, for example, saw its circulation increase by 170percent and program attendance rise 275 percent after undergoing majorrenovations in 2010. When we invest in the upkeep of our libraries, the publicis able to take full advantage of its many resources.

The current capitalprocess has resulted in wide discrepancies in capital funding between the threesystems and left gaping holes in the libraries’ maintenance budgets. Forexample, between 2003 and 2012, the Brooklyn Public Library received $41 perperson in capital funding, compared to $62 per person for NYPL and $69 perperson for the Queens Public Library. This is unacceptable and is the result ofa failure to adequately fund a citywide capital plan for our branch libraries. Thisis not a way to fund the upkeep of a vital city asset that is in high demand. Allthree library systems are focused on delivering the best service and providingthe best environment for New Yorkers, but are being thwarted in their effortsdue to a lack of city funding.

The philanthropiccommunity has great interest in supporting the wide variety of library programsand services being offered to the public, but not the basic infrastructure. Thecapital funding process must be reformed. The city should raise the generalcapital allocation for the libraries and help the libraries build a long-termcapital plan to address the critical maintenance issues and bring agingbranches into the digital age. In some cases, accumulating maintenance needs actuallymakes it cheaper to build a new branch than to fully renovate an existing one.

The libraries are wiseto consider alternatives to address its crumbling infrastructure. Understandingthe overall limits of the city capital budget, we should not ignore newpotential capital sources drawing from the value of deteriorating facilities.If planned and executed with community input and support, there are manyopportunities for libraries. With the proper safeguards and the ability tomaintain a library presence in the community during construction— mixed-usedevelopment, for example, holds great promise.

In the 1980s, when manyof the city’s neighborhoods were devastated, city government stepped up torebuild tens of thousands of units of affordable housing through the use ofgeneral obligation bonds. The City’s commitment not only revitalized ourneighborhoods, but also leveraged significant private financing andphilanthropic resources. There is no reason why the City Council and nextadministration couldn’t execute a similar plan for the libraries using generalobligation bonds. I cannot imagine a better bang for your buck.

All New Yorkers,regardless of neighborhood or borough, deserve well-maintained libraries andequal opportunity to education. In today’s digital age, rapid access toinformation isn’t a luxury, but a necessity. New Yorkers need their librariesmore than ever. Thank you.”