Budget woes put Fairfax library services on the line

By Derek Kravitz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 19, 2010

Librarian Nancy Klein says she didn't realize how ironic her situation was until she found herself standing at a podium at the Fairfax County Government Center last month to accept an award for helping fellow public-sector employees navigate the new world of layoffs and budget cuts. As Klein accepted the prize, she didn't mention that by spring she, too, could be without the job she cherishes.

With the county's 23 library branches considered a "discretionary" service, the jobs of Klein and dozens of other library staffers are in jeopardy. Fairfax's library system, the sixth largest in the country, will have absorbed a budget cut of 33 percent over two years if the county executive's proposal for the coming year is approved. Hours have been reduced, fees have been increased and hundreds of employees have been laid off. A third of its work force, mostly administrative assistants and pages, were let go during the last budget go-around.

Public libraries have been particularly susceptible to budget cuts as localities nationwide and across the Washington region grapple with shortfalls caused by declining residential and commercial property tax revenue.

In Loudoun County, officials have proposed closing all library branches on Fridays and Sundays and instituting a 10-cents-a-day overdue-book fee. Twenty-five library positions are also likely to be cut. On Tuesday, the Prince William county executive proposed cutting $855,000 from the library budget, a measure that would include closing the two least-used branches and eliminating 14 positions. Montgomery County officials voted last week to cut more than $1 million from public libraries in the current budget. That follows a round of library cuts last fall that sliced $1.6 million. More than $2 million of the total reductions will come from the budget for books and other materials, which will shrink by more than a third.

In Fairfax, the cuts have become especially noticeable. On magazine racks, yellow paper signs note that subscriptions have been canceled because of budget constraints. Officials say Fairfax is ranked last in the Washington area in library spending per capita, a level roughly half that of libraries in Arlington County and Alexandria.

Edwin S. "Sam" Clay III, Fairfax's libraries director since 1982, has said that during this second consecutive year of budget cuts, personnel -- an estimated 89 full-time positions affecting 107 staffers -- will have to be trimmed to keep the library's mission as a free, full-service public library intact. Meanwhile, customer visits and library use have increased as the jobless and the cash-strapped flock to free library facilities and programs.

"It's the public library where people are turning for help with their résumé, for a job certification test or applying for a job online," said Emily Sheketoff, executive director of the Washington office of the American Library Association. "Libraries are being inundated by people needing help looking to work."

Board of Supervisors Chairman Sharon S. Bulova (D) said it is premature to highlight any proposed job cuts, noting that the budget won't be finalized until April. But Bulova said the planned elimination of 30 of Fairfax's 54 full-time librarian positions was a sobering reminder of how deep next year's cuts will go.

"When you see how these cuts will impact real-world employees, it makes what we do very difficult," she said.

County Executive Anthony H. Griffin is scheduled to present his proposed budget Tuesday.

As president of the library's employees association, Klein has been the go-to person for staffers worried about the library system's rapidly shrinking budget and potential layoffs. She has been an advocate for keeping employees' health-care premiums down, working to boost morale and meeting with officials to brainstorm ideas to save money as the libraries face a $5 million budget gap next fiscal year. Klein was rewarded for her work with the county's annual Don Smith Award, given to the staffer who had worked to improve the "well-being of their fellow employees."

Klein, 49, worked for the public library system from 1994 to 2001 before leaving to take a job in the circulation department at George Mason University in Fairfax. After getting her master's degree in library science in 2006, she came back as a librarian in the Kingstowne branch in Alexandria. But because of the five-year break between her Fairfax County library stints, Klein re-entered the system at the bottom of the seniority scale. Now, as part of the county's last-in, first-out employee policy, she stands to be one of the first librarians let go as payroll is slashed.

Some could be placed in other positions within the county workforce, but librarian positions are particularly specialized, said Roberta A. Longworth, executive director of the Fairfax Library Foundation, a nonprofit group that advocates for the system. During a meeting last month to discuss layoffs and personnel changes, Klein said two county human resource officers told her that it may be difficult to find a spot for her.

When Klein accepted her $1,000 cash award last month in front of a room full of county officials, she didn't mention that she might be laid off. She continued to promote the library system as a vital educational resource facing extinction.

"We are a necessity to many citizens, and we hope that you remember that when it comes time to vote on the budget," she said.

Staff writers Jennifer Buske, Christy Goodman and Michael Laris contributed to this report.

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