The future remains uncertain for the Birmingham Public Library and its 230 employees, thanks to city budget cuts necessitated by COVID-19.
And there have been no clear answers from Mayor Randall Woodfin regarding just how much money the library system will receive from the city, which will determine how many branches will have to close and how many employees have to be furloughed.
Or rather, as members of the BPL Board of Trustees remarked during a library board meeting Tuesday afternoon, there have been several clear answers from Woodfin, all of them dramatically different.
There’s the original figure that Woodfin presented as part of his initial FY 2021 budget proposal three weeks ago, which gave the BPL $12.83 million — a cut from the previous year’s $15.36 million budget. Then there’s the revised number he presented 10 days after the first, adding “$2.5 million and some change” to bring the library’s funding roughly even with the FY 2020 amount.
Now, board members say they’ve been given a third number of $7.039 million — less than half of the FY 2020 budget. If that’s the final number — and if library operations continue at their current rate — the BPL will run out of money by February, Executive Director Floyd Council said Tuesday.
“Just speaking quite frankly, it feels like we as a board have been caught in the middle of this,” said board member Kimberly Richardson, lamenting the “moving target” the board has been given. “We have been advised (by legal counsel) not to necessarily take action at this time until we can get confirmation and we can know the budget we’re working with… Each time we’ve moved to pull the trigger and take action, we’ve gotten new information.”
Members of the Birmingham City Council who called into Tuesday’s board meeting found themselves unable to provide much reassurance — because they, too, have not received concrete numbers from Woodfin’s office.
“We thought that (the initially published proposal) was the budget, but now it seems that’s not the budget and there are other budget numbers that we are not privy to as of yet,” Councilor Valerie Abbott told meeting attendees. “Those were promised to us yesterday afternoon, and we haven’t received them yet… So the council is left in a quandary.”
District 5 Councilor Darrell O’Quinn also noted his frustration. “I’m kind of left throwing my hands up in the air and saying, ‘What the heck’s going on? What are we dealing with here? Somebody please give me some information that I can make a decision on!’”
BPL employees have been subjected to conflicting information since budget talks began. Most employees received furlough letters from the mayor’s office last month, but were told to disregard them by board President Eunice Johnson Rogers, who insisted that employee furloughs were the board’s decision, not the mayor’s. Woodfin acquiesced shortly afterward, offering the additional $2.5 million to the library system as a “compromise” and telling BPL employees to look for furlough letters from the board “within the next two weeks.”
Board members say they were prepared to move forward staffing plans based on those initial numbers until their legal counsel — City Attorney Malera Wright, who works for the city’s law department — gave them the greatly reduced third figure.
“Until we get a number where we can make a logical and well-informed decision, we’re just going to have to wait,” said board member James Sullivan during Tuesday’s meeting. “Once we get there, we can move quickly.”
Toward the end of the meeting, board member Sherri Nielsen addressed BPL employees listening in. “The uncertainty isn’t coming from the board,” she said. “If we had a figure, we could let you know.”