By Erica Wright
The Birmingham Times
Protesters converged both inside and outside of City Hall on Tuesday to denounce plans to furlough 158 workers at Birmingham Public Library because of a $63 million shortfall in the city’s budget.
Before the City Council’s weekly meeting more than two dozen demonstrators gathered outside to call on city and library leaders to support the libraries which provide a number of essential services for citizens.
During the meeting, a number of librarians inside the City Council chambers became emotional as they spoke about helping children with homework and adults with literacy programs and urging councilors to vote no on the mayor’s proposed $412 million FY 2021 spending plan with the cuts.
The furloughed employees were allowed to speak at the end of
the meeting which was not open for public comment after Council President William Parker cited concerns over crowding the council chambers due to COVID-19.
“I am a library professional and a storyteller, I love my job and my patrons and I believe in the work that we do,” said Chelsea Rodriguez, a librarian at the Springville Road Branch for the past two and a half years. “I’m not just here as a library professional but as a citizen of Birmingham . . . libraries are essential social spaces that play useful roles in society.”
Laretha Jackson, an employee of the Springville Road Branch Library for 16 years, also urged the council to vote no on the proposed budget.
“Closing libraries means that some people are cut off from their life support. Sometimes, we are the only smiling faces that people get to see. People are not only receiving information, resources and entertainment from us, they also get to form lifelong friendships and lasting connections,” said Jackson.
She also spoke about the “150-plus families [who] will not be able to enjoy the holidays this year. Some of us are already having a tough time making ends meet and taking our income is unheard of. How will our families be able to eat? How will we keep roofs over our heads and provide warmth during these cold winter months ahead? Please vote no [on the budget] to help us continue positively engaging our communities.”
Several audience members interrupted the meeting; one was removed by security after approaching the podium to ask for the public speakers’ sign-up sheet.
The protests come after Birmingham Mayor Randall Woodfin told library board members in a private call last week that his recommended library budget for FY 2021 had been cut to $6.2 million, far less than last year’s $15.3 million budget and less than the $12.8 million in Woodfin’s initial FY 2021 budget proposal.
The library has already spent $2.6 million since the fiscal year started July 1, meaning it has $3.6 million left to spend between Oct. 1 and June 30. The furloughs will be effective Sept. 25. Of the 158 furloughed employees, 91 are full-time and 67 are part-time employees.
Cuts Will Cause “Damage”
On Monday, BPL’s Executive Director Floyd Council said that even with the 158 workers placed on furlough, the library can still provide the kind of services residents have been accustomed to but will take “a little gusto.”
The librarians disagreed.
“There is no way that the library can offer quality services,” said Tiffany West, an 18-year BPL employee who had been furloughed, “I don’t care what (Council said); there is no way that the library can offer quality services with a remaining budget of $3.6 million and 158 employees furloughed. … Please, please, please do not support a budget that hurts libraries and neighborhoods and takes away the only source of income from citizens like myself . . . This is unjust and these cuts should be shared more proportionately,” West said.
“This budget cripples the Birmingham Public Library system,” Rodriguez said. “The damage this will cause to our communities is irresponsible and will take years to amend so I urge you to vote no on this budget.”
By the time the library employees were allowed to speak, Woodfin already had left the council chambers.
However, after the meeting the mayor said his administration did everything it could to avoid the cuts and said the furloughs were made by the library’s Board of Trustees.
“I want to make it clear [the libraries] have been closed since March because of the pandemic and with 19 branches, many of them are very small and don’t have the luxury to social distance… the decision to keep them close and be closed since March is the library board’s decision.”
Every step was taken to avoid cuts, the mayor said, including eliminating over 400 vacant positions, including 50 in the police department; nine paid holidays for city employees, reducing funding to various non-city boards and agencies and reducing funding for economic incentives.
The mayor said he is also taking a 10 percent pay cut and appointed employees, including those in the mayor’s office will receive pay reductions of 3 to 10 percent. Department heads and deputy department heads also face a pay cut.
“We did everything we could until we got to the point of furloughs,” said Woodfin. “It’s not something we want to do, it’s something we have to do.”