From the outside, the Middletown branch of the Louisville Free Public Library is unremarkable. It’s a mostly brown building with stone accents on the walls, a circle drive and the words “East Government Center” in block letters affixed to the front.
But these days, that last detail matters. The city leases space in the privately-owned East Government Center for the library. And not just that: The Charmoli Neighborhood Place is also in the building, as is the Louisville Metro Police Department’s 8th Division.
As part of his recent budget proposal, Mayor Greg Fischer proposed closing the Middletown and Fern Creek branches of the library, as well as the Charmoli Neighborhood Place. City officials are working on cutting more than $25 million from the budget to offset rising employee health care and pension costs.
One of the reasons for the proposed closings Fischer gave reporters last week was that those two libraries and the Neighborhood Place are in leased space.
“We are closing the Charmoli Neighborhood Place in the leased space in Middletown. This budget also calls for closing two libraries where we’ll be able to save about a million dollars from that,” Fischer said.
Republican Councilman Anthony Piagentini represents District 19, which includes Middletown. He agreed that operating libraries in leased space is not cost-effective, but he said there could be other options. He would like to find a way to move the library rather than shut it down.
“If we want to have a conversation about getting a building that we own as a city that’s a more cost-effective option and that’s better for the long term, I am right there at the table,” he said. “I’ll do everything I can to support that.”
Piagentini said he does not know of a city-owned building that could house the Middletown library, but he suggested the Charmoli Neighborhood Place could be co-located with a school. He said he plans to work with colleagues on the council to find a solution.
At the same time, Piagentini, who was a vocal opponent of the tax plan Fischer promoted as an alternative to budget cuts, also said he thinks the decision to — in his words — “target” two resources in his district was more than coincidence. He said he believes it was political. There’s no other reasonable explanation for trying to close one of the most popular libraries in the system, he said.
A spokeswoman for Fischer pushed back on Piagentini’s assertion, calling it “ridiculous.”
“These are not places we want to close. These cuts are driven largely by the state pension obligation, which will continue to grow year over year, and impact every department, including the Mayor’s Office and Metro Council, as well as all areas of the city,” Jessica Wethington said in a statement emailed to WFPL.
She added that the new Northeast Regional Library, which is set to open this year, would help offset the loss of Middletown. The new library is about a 10-minute drive from the East Government Center.
Lee Burchfield, who was named permanent director of the Louisville Free Public Library by the mayor last week, said Middletown has the highest circulation of any library in the system. It was second highest when the St. Matthews library, which is set to reopen next month, closed for renovations.
He agreed that the new regional library could serve Middletown patrons if that branch closes.
In a recent email to library employees obtained by WFPL, Burchfield called the mayor’s budget “sobering” and “troubling to our patrons.” He said the proposed budget is not what city leaders, including the mayor, and supporters want for the libraries.
“I have every confidence that our leaders will solve this problem and that in the near future we will be back with restored hours, bigger, better, reopened branches, and more materials for our library patrons to borrow,” he wrote.
‘It feels like we’re carrying it all by ourselves’
LFPL has an annual budget of more than $20 million, and Fischer’s proposal suggests cutting upwards of $2 million from what the library system needs to maintain current staffing and service levels in the next fiscal year.
Shaving more than $2 million off the library’s budget would require eliminating substitute positions, reducing support funds to the new Northeast Regional Library, trimming operating hours and closing the Middletown and Fern Creek branches.
All of that adds up to slashing more than 90 jobs through layoffs and attrition, according to a spreadsheet released by the mayor’s office last week. Of the layoffs, one position is full-time while 56 are part-time, another budget document said. Ten full-time and 25 part-time positions will be eliminated through attrition.
The proposal is creating stress for library employees like Valerie Pfister, a youth services librarian assistant and vice president of the librarians’ union.
“The library is taking, like most all of this, it feels like,” Pfister said. “It feels like we’re carrying it all by ourselves, at least like with regards to workers, and like the direct effect of people losing their jobs.”
Pfister said there could be a few factors leading to what feels like a disproportionate hit on the library system. For one, they’ve already slashed operating costs. And then there’s the fact that the libraries employ lots of part-time workers, which Pfister speculated may be easier to cut.
There’s another factor, too. One Pfister didn’t mention, but Fischer admitted last week: Cutting more from the libraries allows him to cut less from public safety.
But the fate of the libraries and their staffs is far from sealed. The Metro Council will work on the budget for two months until passing a final version in late June. Only then will the patrons of the Middletown and Fern Creek branches know whether they’ll have to find somewhere new to get their books, use computers or pass a quiet morning.