Friday, June 5, 2009

Libraries almost get a reprieve ...

The City Council hearing was a packed one last night - standing room only - for the first time during the budget hearings. Numerous people testified calling cuts the city manager was proposing as unacceptable.
Early on, not surprisingly, councilors asked people if they would accept a higher tax rate in order to keep the library open. Many responded in the affirmative with some saying they would make better use of other budget line items and a few people calling for across the board salary cuts for employees in upper management in the city.
The proposed budget would cut the library but around 30 percent, worse than a lot of line items. It would eliminate the Penacook branch and move hours at the main branch from 62 to 35 hours per week, and cut a number of other items. Library advocates estimate that they need about $20 more per household in order to keep the library system the way it is.
Most of the testimony was quite passionate, with people pleading with the council to preserve the library, stressing its importance to the mental health of the community, and other points. A few were even on the verge of tears. At least one 27-year employee stood up so that councilors could see the face of one of the workers. She quickly pointed out a few women in the crowd who were slated to lose their jobs. Others presented petitions that had been collected in the past few weeks to support keeping the library open.
Rep. Rick Watrous also rose to speak, noting that there were other ways to save the library other than raising taxes. He was lambasted by Ward 6 Councilor Allen Bennett, who blamed Watrous for voting for the state budget which cut Concord's money by $1.3 million. Watrous said he didn't have a choice and pointed to three city councilors who also voted for the same cuts since they serve in the Legislature. He also noted that Bennett was only attacking him because he sits on the board of Concord TV, the non-profit that receives more than $200,000 from the city, a line item that Watrous and others have attacked in the past. The audience snickered at that, clearly understanding that Bennett had an ax to grind. During the break in the testimony, a number of people approached Watrous to inquire what exactly he was talking about.
Before testifying, the mayor apologized to me for misspeaking during remarks he made on Monday evening.
Because I have been unable to attend other budget hearings, I submitted testimony via email about preserving the community services officer, leaf pickup, and cutting Concord TV. The mayor stated that I alleged that the council ignores folks who write to council or send in emails and what I actually wrote was that the council had reported ignored my testimony regarding waste and mismanagement in the cable media access budget. I thanked the mayor for the clarification, stating that while we may not all agree, I know that the councilors are reading emails because they often respond and also post notes here at
Here is the text of my testimony, delivered with some variation, since I never read things exactly how I write my comments:
I’ll admit that tonight, I’m wearing many hats: Father and husband, a native of Concord, whose family has been residents for more than a century, co-founder of the Concord Taxpayers Association, and long-time user of the library.

Many of the people tonight have already said many of the things I planned on saying. I’ll quickly make a few points:

Let me start off by saying that reducing hours at the main library and closing the Penacook branch are unacceptable recommendations. I can’t tell you how many hours I have spent in the main branch library. Probably thousands. Dreams and lives are made every day in that building. I’m a journalist today because I read newspapers from all over the world in the library and also peddled the Monitor for years. Reading music magazines inspired me to become a musician, putting out my own records and CDs and playing shows for more than 20 years. I can’t tell you how great it is to see the joy in my almost 5 year-old’s face when we find a Max & Ruby DVD or a Toot and Puddle book, materials that I could never afford to buy him, but thankfully, can borrow, in the same department that I visited as a boy.

While I don’t use the Penacook branch library, keeping it open as much as possible is of utmost importance to the friends I know and family members I have who live in that neighborhood. Allow me a little leeway here while I make a subtle point to you all. According to Mapquest, it is 17 miles between the Penacook branch and the main branch. So let’s pretend for a moment that people in Penacook had to drive that amount of miles just to visit the main library. It would take at least 24 minutes, probably more, because we know how bad the traffic is there. If a Penacook resident has a 30 mpg car, they will spend $1.40 to drive back and forth, each trip.

According to the library director, between 400 and 500 people use the library per month. In using the mileage and gas expenses, over a year’s time, Penacook residents will drive at least 102,000 miles and spend at least 144,000 hours in their cars, driving between their community and the main library. Add up what the potential in lost work productivity would be. Add up the potential lost family time. Add up the pollution in the neighborhoods between Penacook and Concord. Unacceptable.

Not unlike others, economic times have been very difficult in my household. I won’t get into specifics, some of you already know. That is why that I am urging you not to raise property taxes to preserve library spending but instead, to utilize the monies that you have available now, or raise new fees, such as charging for leaf pickup.

In this week’s Concord Insider, there was an overview of the PAYT program, which some of us have nicknamed the bag tax. While many of us may not like the fact that you created the bag tax, you have set a precedence of sorts. In the article, it discussed issues with the leaf and debris pickup and how residents will have to bag the debris in the spring. This information was provided to the newspaper by Councilor Nyhan and city employees. Residents can acquire those bags at local hardware stores. However, why is the city is not charging for those bags like you’re doing with trash? This council has also made no plans to charge for vacuuming the leaves in the fall. Why? A fee for leaf pickup is a quick and easy thing to put together. Have general services estimate how many man hours it takes to pick up leaves and fuel costs and set a price. Instant money.

Another item, which the Mayor just alluded to, is the funding of the cable media access center. On Monday, you saw a very nice presentation by the director and board chairman. The employees seem to be accomplishing a lot there. I will commend them for finally upgrading from the terrible videotape they once had and getting the programs up online. I will also commend the director who seems like a pleasant person and is accessible. But anyone who knows the history of why PEGs stations exist knows that it is not about being an employment opportunity for four or five people, it is about volunteers getting access to television, something you can’t do unless you have millions of dollars. For a number of years now, I have come before you during these finance hearings to talk about some of the wasted money in this line item … the thousands of dollars for travel junkets; the tens of thousands for private IRAs, thousands in volunteer services and treats for the board during their meetings. And let’s look at the fundraising efforts. In 2008, they spent $28,400 to raise $18,800, and another $65,546 on “outreach” expenses … In 2007, they spent $28,700 to raise $13,000 … with outreach expenses of $26,200. In 2006, $24,100 was spent on fundraising and $46,500 on outreach to raise a measly $9,800. Year after year after year, tens of thousands of dollars are wasted and mismanaged at the cable media access center. You don’t have to believe me or anyone else … the information is published in their annual reports online. Go and look for yourself.

In closing, I say to you, please, don’t raise taxes any more. Utilize some of the hundreds of thousands of dollars in other sources and potential fees right in front of you to preserve our libraries.
Towards the end of the hearing, Michael Herrmann of Gibson's Bookstore asked about whether or not reserve funds could be used to stave off library cuts. There is about $5 million in reserves right now, down from $9 million, according to the city manager.
After the first round of testimony, which ended after four hours, I asked if the city manager and/or finance director could speak to the issue of using a small amount of the reserve account, and whether that would have a negative affect on the city's bond rating. Mayor Jim Bouley asked if I could be contacted at a later date with that information, since councilors were also interested in getting a report about those issues.
City councilors voted to approve the Recreation Department budget and then moved onto the library budget. Ward 1 Councilor Elizabeth Blanchard, who represents Penacook, made a motion to put back about $35,000 into the library budget to keep the Penacook branch open for 12 hours a week. The motion was seconded by at-large Councilor Steve Shurtleff.
There was some discussion back and forth about the motion. A number of councilors and the mayor explained why they would vote against the motion. Most said they wanted to get through the entire budget process and then would come back on June 22 to attempt to put back some things in the budget. A vote was then taken and the motion was rejected by a 6 to 9 vote. Voting in the affirmative were Blanchard, Shurtleff, Bill Stetson, Rob Werner, Dick Patten, and Candace Bouchard.


Anonymous said...

Thank you for attending last nights City Budget meeting on the Library. One slight correction is that it may be only 7 miles not 17 between the penacook library and the main library on green st. Your point still stands about travel.

I hope citizens will attend the next meeting on june 4. The topic will be Human Services and Social Service Agencies.
The final Public Hearing/Budgert adoption will be on Monday June 22 at 7PM.

Mark Coen

Tony said...

hi mark, not to be argumentative, but if you measure on between 3 merrimack st. in penacook to 45 green st. in concord, it's 8.5 miles or 17 miles, round trip. tony

Anonymous said...

Tony makes some strong points about the cable TV center wasting money. I wonder if Councilor Coen approves of city $$$ being wasted that way..

Give the money to a private corporation or to our city libraries? Seems like a no-brainer to me.