In Great Barrington, Like Many Towns, Library Services Easily Fall Victim To Budget Cuts

Apr 11, 2018

It's budgeting season in communities across New England. And it happens to be National Library Week. Terry Cowgill of the Berkshire Edge wrote about what he calls "the budget cutting ritual" in Great Barrington, Massachusetts. Libraries and budget cuts often go together.

Terry Cowgill, Managing Editor, Berkshire Edge: The town is at a real disadvantage when it comes to trying to trim their budget, because most of the money goes to the school district, and that’s really out of their hands.

And [Great Barrington officials] can't really cut the wages, or benefits of town employees, because they have union contracts.

Basically, if you need to cut, then you look at things like supplies and programs.

In the case of the library, non-print materials, books and subscriptions, staff training and travel -- that sort of thing. And to be fair, they didn't single out the library, there were other departments that took cuts, but it seemed like the library [cuts] were the biggest and also generated the greatest amount of controversy.

Carrie Healy, NEPR: The town released an $11.3 million spending plan last week. There was a public hearing -- you were there. What were some of the feelings expressed that night?

Most of [the people] talked about how important the libraries were to the town, and to just about anybody who values culture and literacy, and technology, and those kinds of things.

A lot of other people were expressing shock, almost outrage that [the town] would cut certain lines such as staff travel and training because, you know, in this day and age, technology is advancing at warp speed, and librarians really need to be kept up to speed on that.

There were older people in their 70s who spoke out. There were a couple of younger people, maybe in their 30s, who had young children that they liked to bring to the libraries that spoke out against this [cut]. And then there was chairman of the library Board of Trustees. He wanted the cuts restored, but he wasn’t advocating that they cut somewhere else. He was suggesting alternative forms of revenue.

He wants the town to consider these “red light” traffic cameras. He pointed to Providence, Rhode Island, which instituted a red light camera program at 25 or 30 intersections in the town, and it generated $1 million in revenue the first year.

Is there a big problem with traffic, running red lights in Great Barrington?

There is. I don’t know how many accidents it actually causes. But I think that he’s just thinking of it as a solution to the problem of a shortage of revenue rather than people actually running red lights -- which they do, certainly.

In an era when so many brick-and-mortar stores are being closed due to the rise of the internet, is it at all surprising that libraries are perennially on the chopping block?

I suppose it’s not surprising in one way, for exactly the reasons you just cited. Increasingly less “business,” if you want to call it that, that comes into the library is actually people checking out books.

Now it seems one of the most popular reasons to come into the library is for internet access. 

And as the chair of the library Board of Trustees said, since July 1 of last year, the libraries in Great Barrington have provided internet access almost 11,000 times for patrons. So he threw that statistic out there to get people’s attention, and it actually did.   

Great Barrington is one of the underserved communities right now, still, in terms of internet access.

Basically you have two choices: you have DSL lines from Verizon, or you have some kind of a cable connection from what used to be Time Warner, and was taken over by Charter Spectrum.

The speeds are, for cable, I think, they max out at 100 mbps. And in this day and age, it's just really not enough for a lot of people and a lot of businesses.

In your article, when it actually came down to voting and cutting money to the library, there had to be some abstentions, because people are affiliated with the library.

That’s right, yeah! In a small town, of course, people wear many hats, and the potential for a conflict of interest is greater simply because everybody knows each other, and we all have lives, and people have to work places.

And when they voted on sustaining or rejecting the library cuts, the chair of the town finance committee, Thomas Blauvelt, had to disqualify himself because his wife works at the library.

And it turns out actually that it was an important vote, because it meant that the finance committee was deadlocked 2-2. Which means the motion to restore the cuts failed.