Pandemic drives Portage libraries to the brink

The Reed Memorial Library opened its doors to the public last Monday. Carter Eugene Adams/The Portager

Pandemic drives Portage libraries to the brink

As local libraries come back to life, they are making changes to the way they serve visitors and adapting to major budget cuts

On one of its last open days in March, Carolyn Andrews Schlemmer walked into Kent Free Library. She carried a stack of books to return, had an idea for books to check out and sported her black canvas tote bag inscribed, “I read banned books.”

Schlemmer, 77, of Rootstown, is an avid reader and patron of the library, often going two times a week where she occasionally tutors students. She described a scene of multiple people checking out of the library with multiple books in hand.

“When I first came in, I saw a family coming out carrying a plastic laundry basket [full of books] one of the older kids was carrying this and all the other [kids] had books too.”

It was the last day the library would be open for over two months.

Now, Kent Free Library, along with Reed Memorial Library and the Portage County District Library, are all starting to reopen their doors and offering in-person services to the public.

The public health crisis and budget shortages not seen since the great recession have strained the resources of libraries in Portage, many to their limits. Even as libraries in Portage County are slowly coming back to life, they are not the same. Protocols are significantly different to protect patrons from coronavirus, and the Portage County District Library is weighing a major change to its funding model, turning to voters for local tax support.

All aboard the Library Express

Monday, June 22, Kent Free Library will allow guests into the building for regular service with some restrictions.

“We are calling this phase Library Express,” Kent Free Library Director Stacey Richardson said. “We will be open for essential library services like browsing, picking up holds, checking out books, making copies and printing.”

Richardson said the library is strongly encouraging patrons to wear masks and practice social distancing.

The Reed Memorial Library opened its doors to the public last Monday. Carter Eugene Adams/The Portager

Reed Memorial opened its doors to patrons last week, while still offering curbside pickup options. Reed, like the Kent library, is offering limited services in an effort to curb the spread of the coronavirus.

Patrons are able to browse new materials, use computer and printing services, pick up their reserved materials and ask for help from staff members.

“While this won’t be the most fun visit to the library, it does allow us to be open and provide critical services, especially public computers. This service model will be more of a grab-and-go style,” said Reed Memorial Library Director Brian Hare.

“I think the thing we want to emphasize the most is asking patrons to be patient,” he said. “The changes we have in place are to keep our patrons and staff safe.”

‘Braced for something pretty bad’

The Portage County District Library’s three-step reopening plan started with its “Library Express Pick-Up Lockers,” which resemble large post office drop boxes and are sprinkled across the county.

The libraries’ website describes the pick-up boxes as allowing “patrons to put holds on materials and pick them up at a locker of their choosing.”

Eventually a curbside pickup option was added at available branches for people who put a hold on materials prior to pick up, marking the start of phase two.

Phase three is when the libraries will open their doors to the public, with new standards set for occupancy and social distancing. When this will happen remains uncertain, said Jonathan Harris, director of Portage County libraries, which serves Aurora, Garrettsville, Randolph, Streetsboro and Windham. But “it is going to be a different environment when we eventually do reopen our doors to the public.”

Some things, such as child play areas and communal seating, may not be available in an effort to ensure social distancing and curtail the spread of the disease.

“We’re going to be following what advice and information we can from the CDC to make sure that while you can get a lot of things at the library that coronavirus isn’t one of them,” Harris said.

He described new safety measures, including plexiglass barriers at desks between workers and the public. The measures are going to take time and money — funds the library may not have in the coming months.

“We were braced for something pretty bad,” Harris said. In April and May the libraries lost 34.5 percent of their budget. And he’s expecting further cuts as the district prepares for upwards of a 20 percent reduction in funding for 2020.

That would mean a funding loss of $475,000 out of their roughly $2 million annual budget.

The Portage County District Library is not alone in funding losses and budget cuts. Kent Free Library saw a 14 percent loss in funding from the state and is preparing for a greater loss later this year.

“To prepare for these revenue losses the library has reduced our spending on library programs, supplies and materials by 20 percent,” Richardson said.. “We’ve also eliminated continuing education and travel for staff.”

Reed Memorial gets 49 percent of its funding from the state. With much of it now cut, they’ve had to reduce their materials budget by 30 percent and postpone planned technology purchases.

A new source of revenue

Unlike many library districts in Ohio, Portage County District Library is almost entirely reliant on state funding — specifically funding from the state general fund, which is mostly income and sales tax money. That general fund has seen crippling losses due to the pandemic, and in turn the state has cut funding nearly across the board.

Compounding the issue, the district library receives funds month-to-month based on the state’s revenue the previous month. So for the libraries, its budget for May was based on state revenue for April.

In late May, the library board voted to enact a hiring freeze, and spending on physical materials and technology updates has all but frozen as well.

With budgets cuts not seen since the 2009 recession, the district library is making an unprecedented move: It’s heading to the ballot box.

The district is considering a 1 mill levy over 10 years , though they have yet to finalize an amount for the ballot initiative this November. The plan would add $3 a month to the tax bill of someone with a $100,000 home. The hope with this initiative is to put Portage Library District on a similar footing as other districts in Northeast Ohio, which receive half their funding from the state and half their funding locally.

The library tried this plan once before and failed: In 2014, Portage County voted down a similar measure.

“We are absolutely at a point, now more than ever, where we do really need that local support, to keep us operating not just for the services that we provide now,” Harris said. “But for the kind of services that allow us to grow in the future.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story stated Reed Memorial Library reduced its entire budget by 30 percent. However, it was the library’s materials budget that was reduced by 30 percent, not the entire budget.

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Carter Eugene Adams is a freelance documentary photographer and multimedia journalist based in Ravenna, Ohio. He is a former multimedia contributor for The Portager.

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