Guilderland library loses half its revenue but keeps budget on an even keel

— Photo from Luanne Nicholson
As part of its building project, the Guilderland Public Library is constructing a dedicated teen room.

GUILDERLAND — Guilderland Public Library trustees voted unanimously to propose a $4,097,100 budget for next year — just $17,000 more than the current year’s spending plan.

Voters will have their say on May 18 at the same time they choose among six trustee candidates running for four openings on the 11-member board.

Incumbents Herb Hennings and Philip Metzger are running, challenged by Michael Hawrylchak, Vanessa Threatte, Antonio Rivera, and Norina Melita.

The library’s director, Timothy Wiles, believes the confluence of the pandemic shutdown with construction work on an $8 million expansion project has resulted in a “great success” — he expects construction work will be completed 11 months early, by Aug. 31, 2021 rather than the original end date of July 2022.

“There’s a good likelihood we will finish under budget and not have to use what voters approved in 2019,” he said. The project was estimated at $8.3 million and the public approved a bond issue of $6.9 million with library savings making up the difference.

Budget revenues for next year have been cut in half — from $84,200 this year to $42,000 projected for next year, which is raising the tax levy to $4,055,000. That 1.48-percent increase is under the state-set levy limit so a simple majority vote would pass the budget.

State and federal aid for the library together total $10,000, Wiles said. Fines are not being charged during the shutdown, the annual book sale was canceled, and interest income has been “disappointing,” Wiles said.

Guilderland residents are currently paying 91 cents per $1,000 of assessed valuation.

The lion’s share of spending, typical of library budgets, is for salaries and benefits at $3,079,250, an increase of $114,850 over this year.

The library has 60 employees of which 35 are full-time; all but seven are in unions — two different chapters of the Civil Service Employees Association, Wiles said.

As part of a three-year contract, those 53 workers will be getting a 2.75-percent raise next year; they got a 3-percent raise the first year of the contract and will get a 2.75 percent raise in the third year, Wiles said.

The seven people not in the union — administrators and information-technology experts — will get “slightly lower” annual raises, Wiles said.

The budget could be balanced despite the increased labor costs because, with the construction project, year-to-year replacement costs — for carpets, furniture, and computers for example — were included in the construction budget rather than in the operating budget.

Wiles does not anticipate a “financial bomb” dropping next year because all of the library systems are new or will be updated, cutting maintenance and repair costs. Also, the new systems are more efficient, he said, citing zero-water urinals in the bathrooms.

The current year has been a challenging one for the library, both because of COVID-19 and because of the massive construction project.

“The main challenge for much of the year was getting very little guidance from the state of New York ...,” said Tim Wiles, the library’s director. “We were kind of shooting in the dark.”

Construction work started in October and Wiles said it took him a month to figure out, with construction workers, how many staff could also be in the library.

With the state-mandated shutdown to stem the spread of the coronavirus, Wiles had proposed last fall that the library stay closed while construction work progressed but a majority of the board wanted to stay open as taxpayers had been promised when they voted for the bond project before COVID-19.

Ultimately, library staff protested that working conditions were unsafe, a public picket in support of staff followed in December, and the library board relented. Throughout the pandemic, services have continued with remote programs and curbside pick-up of materials.

 

Tax rates

The area served by the library follows the boundaries of the Guilderland School District although the library has its own separate elected board, which develops its budget independently of the school.

Most of the district is in the town of Guilderland but small parts are also in the towns of Bethlehem, New Scotland, and Knox. Each has its own tax rate based on a state-set equalization rate.

It is estimated that next year, if the budget passes, Guilderland residents will pay 92 cents per $1,000 of assessed valuation, Bethlehem residents will pay 97 cents, New Scotland residents will pay $1.02, and Knox residents will pay $1.78 per $1,000 of assessed value in library taxes.

These numbers are rounded to the nearest penny and represent a roughly a 1.5 percent increase over the current year.

 

Trustees

Wiles said he is “thrilled” when more people run for the library board than there are available seats.

That was the case last year when  Metzger and Hennings were ousted; both have since been appointed by the board to fill vacancies created when Barry Nelson and Bryan Best resigned.

Part of the reason for the recent resignations, Wiles said, was frustration over not being able to meet in person.

“Hopefully, the challenges of construction and COVID will be behind us,” Wiles said of what the new board will face.

Looking back at the last year, Wiles said, “A societal crisis like COVID makes people think about core values.” Some trustees wondered what sort of work staff was doing at home and thought it appropriate to bring up furloughs, he said.

“The discussion caused a lot of pain and anxiety,” he said, adding that the contract prohibited furloughs to save money. His own stance, Wiles said, is that staff is working harder than before.

Unity on the board suffered, he said, which was “exacerbated by remote meetings.”

The board had a “deep division” over whether anonymous public comments could be allowed, said Wiles, which “led to a couple of resignations.”

In the midst of the controversy over delaying browsing and granting furloughs, many anonymous written comments from library staff were read at the board meetings.

At its April meeting, the board adopted a policy on public comment that states, “Speakers are encouraged but not required to share their name if they so wish and if they are representing a group, the name of the group.”

Wiles concluded, “Our board is 11 members and represents the diversity of outlook in Guilderland.”

 

Digital growth

“We are open, just differently than in the past,” said Wiles of the library this week.

Online services at the library have mushroomed this past year. The growth for items like ebooks and streamed magazines and videos has increased from 300 percent to almost 1,000 percent, Wiles said.

“Our growth was about double other libraries in the Upper Hudson Library System,” he said.

Asked about the circulation of physical objects, Wiles said that has fallen by about 50 percent, which he said is consistent with other libraries. Curbside pick-up is five times as labor-intensive for library staff as was checking out items that patrons had selected.

Construction work makes tasks more difficult and presents safety issues, Wiles said. Recently, for example, employees tripped over the base of a wall that hadn’t been there before.

“There are times you need to wear a hard hat in there …. We use the phrase ‘controlled chaos,” Wiles said. Books as well as office contents have all been moved. Offices that were moved once are currently being moved again to new spaces, Wiles said.

The library issued about 2,000 new library cards this year, which is typical of non-pandemic years, he said.

Wiles said he has heard a handful of complaints about the library not being open for browsing.

He said he recently stopped by the Colonie library, which allows 30 patrons in at a time; he was the 12th on entering and, when he left a half-hour later, there were 11.

“A lot of people are staying away,” he said of libraries who allow access.

“When we open 11 months early and quite possibly under budget … hopefully even those who are unhappy now would think wise decisions were made,” he said.

Until Dec. 31, most of the library’s programs will be online or outdoors, he said, adding, “We’ve learned it’s comparatively easy and comparatively rewarding to do an online program.”

Wiles added,  “We’re still assessing when the doors will open …. The majority of people have been patient with us.”

 

‘A magnet’

Wiles said he was eager to “wax poetic” on the building expansion and renovations.

The project is adding 20,000 square feet that includes a youth activity room and eventually a café — local eateries are bidding on it now.

The toddler play space has a heated floor; the library has a third public meeting room, more study rooms and five gender-neutral bathrooms.

Two areas are being created for relaxing and reading — one with a 540-gallon fish tank and the other with a natural gas fireplace, featuring a mantel from Guilderland’s Fuller’s Tavern in 1795.

“You can actually see charring on it,” said Wiles.

These features, he said, will be “a magnet to bring people into our building.”

Because of the pandemic, the building was redesigned to allow for social distancing “so people can safely congregate,” Wiles said. Computers at tables, for example, are six feet apart, or have plexiglass between them.

All the shelving in the main reading room will be on wheels so it can be quickly cleared for gatherings of 300 to 400 people under the skylights. It used to take a day and a half to clear the space and now prep and cleanup will each be done in an hour, Wiles said.

Wiles is anticipating booming interest in the library when it reopens. When the building first opened in 1992, he said, there was a 30-percent increase in circulation over the year before.

“We should have kind of a Renaissance this fall,” Wiles said.

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