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Longer wait times, staff cuts possible at Mid-Continent Public Library after board slashes budget

A brown sign sits among bushes and flowers. It reads "Mid-Continent Public Library John W. Ferguson Administrative Headquarters"
Savannah Hawley
KCUR 89.3
At the administrative building last week, Mid-Continent's board voted to decrease the tax levy that funds the library. Library administrators don't yet know how the cuts will affect the library's services

The Mid-Continent Public Library board voted to reduce their tax levy by more than 2 cents, which will reduce the system’s funding by about $4.3 million. Library staff are now scrambling to find savings in the budget.

Month-long wait times for books, reduced staff, outdated technology — all are possible effects for patrons of the Mid-Continent Public Library system after the board of trustees voted to reduce the institution's primary source of revenue, according to staff scrambling to find savings.

Last week, the library’s board voted 8-3 to decrease a tax levy that funds the library. It also voted 7-4 to reduce the library system’s operating budget by about $1.3 million for the current fiscal year. The change will save property owners in Clay, Jackson and Platte counties an average of $5 per year. But the long-term effects of the reduction are still unknown.

“I have all kinds of emotions rolling around,” said Susan Wray, interim CEO for the Mid-Continent system. “We're disappointed. It is not something the leadership team supported. We are going to figure out how to handle it and what that means for this year and then, more importantly, what it might mean for next year.”

The reduction means taxpayers will pay only 32.40 cents per $100 of assessed valuation instead of the 34.68 cents that the library was currently receiving from the levy. In all, the 2.28-cent decrease will result in about $4.3 million less revenue for the library throughout 2022-2023.

Emily Becker, community relations specialist at the library, said the effects of the cut will last years.

“I think our staff are excellent stewards of the taxpayers, and they put together sound budgets based on need, so cutting funds from there will mean cutting resources or services in some form or fashion, which I think is unfortunate for customers,” Becker said.

Residents in the three counties the library serves — Clay, Jackson and Platte — overwhelmingly voted in favor of the tax in 2016. And at the meeting, every public commenter and the majority of online feedback was against the board’s decision.

A contentious vote

Mid-Continent’s board is represented by 12 members, four from each county the system serves. Gordon Cook, a board member representing Platte County and chair of the finance committee, proposed the reduction.

All three Jackson County representatives who were present at the meeting on September 20 — Brent Shondelmeyer, Joycelyn Tucker Burgo and John Laney — voted against the measure. In all, Jackson County residents supply more than half the funds that Mid-Continent receives from the levy.

At the contentious meeting, Cook said the library is taking more revenue than it needs and lowering the levy can still cover its expenses and avoid extra spending.

“We have never spent the budget, and it appears to also include wants,” Cook said.

But Burgo said with the exception of the pandemic years, the library has regularly spent the majority of its budget. During the height of COVID-19, the library hired staff only as needed and pushed back expected publishing dates for materials to decrease the budget.

“I take exception to your presentation of the budgeting process as us padding our wants,” Burgo said at the meeting. “The staff looks at the needs — and the needs always outweigh what our resources are — and they work backward to see what they can do with the resources we have. If you think things are padded, let me know what they are so we know what will be cut.”

Cook said that the library could offer taxpayers some relief from economic burdens by cutting the levy. But Burgo said the $5 savings per property owner isn’t enough to justify the possible loss of services to library patrons.

“The times you're talking about where people cannot afford things, those are precisely the times when people rely on the library,” Burgo said at the meeting.

Aisles of shelves are lined with books. There are carpet tiles lining the floor and fluorescent lights above.
Savannah Hawley
KCUR 89.3
Library administrators are still working out what services could be cut due to the budget and levy cuts. Mid-Continent CEO Susan Wray said technological updates, staffing, and wait times for books could be delayed.

Potential service reductions

The library is already 25% through the fiscal year, and Wray said she and her administrative staff are conducting meetings to figure out where to make cuts to the budget. She said library patrons won’t notice many changes this year but there will likely need to be more changes in the years to come.

“If you're putting a book on a hold, it may take a little bit longer for you to get that hold,” Wray said.

According to a staff sheet, even one fewer copy of a book due to cutting materials could result in four more weeks of wait time. “Right now that's probably the most obvious one that may take place. I'm hoping not to have an impact on buying physical and digital materials this year,” Wray said.

The library will soon open a new branch in east Independence, and full-time equivalent staff is not included in the budget. Staff and operating costs at the new location will cost about $1 million per year.

Other major anticipated expenses like replacing self-service checkout machines, laptops, HVAC and rebuilding the health insurance fund could also be affected by the decreased funding.

“It could mean not as many staff in the building,” Wray said. “I really truly don't know what that looks like. This is new territory for us, so we're going to do the best that we can with what we have.”

Yummy Pandolfi, a board member from Platte County who voted for the decrease, said the library should still be fully funded.

“The budget was raised appropriately to account for growth and unexpected expenses,” Pandolfi said. “That number was a little lower than the full levy. Therefore the honest thing to do was to take what was needed and give the taxpayers a break, a total win-win scenario.”

Voters overwhelmingly approved the tax in 2016

The vote came as a shock to some. Joel Jones, director of library services at Kansas City Public Library, said it goes against the wishes of taxpayers like him.

“I am a Mid-Continent Public Library district resident, so I pay that tax to the Mid-Continent Public Library,” Jones said. “Personally it's disturbing to see a neighbor library kind of having some pushback about the levy increase that their community overwhelmingly approved in 2016.”

Jones said he knows the staff at Mid-Continent put a lot of work into engaging residents and putting the levy to good use. He said he expects the Kansas City library system — which currently collects a levy of 55.4 cents — to serve more people if Mid-Continent services are limited.

“They're a different library system, they serve a different audience,” Jones said. “They provide library services to small rural communities in Platte and Clay Counties, some of the most urban areas in Kansas City and then also some suburban areas. I think that they will do the best they can to make the budget work.”

The possible changes and reductions in services within one of the nation’s largest library systems will affect the more than 800,000 people it serves. Wray said it’s more important than ever after the board’s recent decision for people to get involved in board actions. All board meetings are open to the public and streamed live on YouTube.

“People need to remember that their local elections count because all of our board members are appointed by elected officials,” Wray said. “If they don't want to actually come to a meeting, they can write letters (to the board) expressing their feelings.”

When news breaks, it can be easy to rely on officials and people in power to get information fast. As KCUR’s general assignment and breaking news reporter, I want to bring you the human faces of the day’s biggest stories. Whether it’s a local shop owner or a worker on the picket line, I want to give you the stories of the real people who are driving change in the Kansas City area. Email me at savannahhawley@kcur.org or follow me on Twitter @savannahhawley.
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