City News

Salem community shares overwhelming support for the library amid budget cut talks

Salem’s city councilors overwhelmingly said this week they would not vote for a city budget that closed the Salem Public Library.

They clarified their viewpoints after receiving a flurry of comments from members of the public opposed to deeper cuts.

But most said eliminating some library employees or services remain on the table as city leaders discuss a budget over the coming months. Those cuts would likely mean further hours reductions to the Main branch of the library, which closed on Sundays earlier this year.

Their testimony came after claims that the city planned to close the library circulated widely online over the weekend. Though the city is not planning to close the main branch of the Salem Public Library, deep staffing cuts are among the budget proposals councilors are considering. 

During Monday’s City Council meeting, over a dozen librarians, teens and community members shared their support of the library.

Those who testified said the cuts would devastate one of the few remaining free and supportive resources available to low income families, teens, unhoused people and people with disabilities in Salem.a

Arlene Weible, a state library employee speaking as a private Salem resident, said that the city’s reduction scenarios don’t adequately show the impact that cuts would have on the community, and urged councilors to ask more questions of their budget.

“How can a community tackle the difficult issues of affordable housing, gang violence and public safety if there’s not attention given to the services that support low-income families in our community?” she said.

Salem Reporter asked each councilor to share their position on a library closure, and cuts, to put their positions clearly on the record. Mayor Chris Hoy and councilors Virginia Stapleton, Linda Nishioka, Trevor Phillips, Jose Gonzalez, Julie Hoy and Vanessa Nordyke said they would not support a budget that closed the library. Read their full responses here.

Councilor Micki Varney did not respond, but has previously said she does not support closing the library. Councilor Deanna Gwyn did not respond, but during the meeting said the library was important.

Most said some form of cuts to the library will likely be part of the equation to balance the city’s budget.

In a budget committee meeting on Thursday, March 21, the city’s Chief Financial Officer Josh Eggleston reviewed budget cuts scenarios first presented in October, three of which were built to answer councilor questions and were not pursued further. Two would have closed the library completely in order to fully fund either police and fire, or all homeless services.

Councilors received hundreds of emails in response to the slides, asking that the library remain open. City Manager Keith Stahley is not building the proposed budget on an option that would close the library. His budget, which will be published on April 17, will serve as the foundation of the budget committee’s discussions. 

“I want to assure all of you that that is not the intention of this process, or this council or this community to close our library,” Stahley said at the meeting. “It was not a scenario that council voted on, that council accepted or provided any direction for us to move forward on.”

The proposal Stahley’s budget is based on, which city councilors discussed last fall, includes $1.2 million in cuts to the library. It would cut eight positions, which a city spokeswoman said have not been identified at this time.

In September, Stahley said the cuts were drafted with a “first team mentality,” where each department made recommendations for cuts that put city interests ahead of the interests of their own departments. He said they went through line-by-line, rather than asking each department to meet a certain percentage.

Oregon State Librarian Wendy Cornelisen testified Monday, and pointed out that in 2017, Salem voters passed a $18.6 million bond to overhaul the 50-year-old Salem Public Library facility. She offered her support if the city would like to pursue a special library taxing district as a funding mechanism.

Salem librarian Kristy Kemper Hodge said the library’s free access is unique in Salem. Its services for all ages help with early literacy, help prepare children for school, get teens involved and give social outlets for older and disabled adults. She helps people apply for jobs and print their resumes.

“The library is an often unseen part of the continuum of support for our most at-risk community members such as the unhoused,” she said.

Members of the Teen Advisory Board also spoke, whose work includes organizing activities to get young people involved. They manage the “take what you need” wall which offers hygiene supplies and cards for food banks and mental health resources.

“Shutting down the library would be damaging an entire generation,” said Dee Barron, a teen advisory board member.

Even more community members would have testified virtually, but a city error meant that those who signed up didn’t receive the Zoom link. City spokeswoman Elizabeth Kennedy-Wong said staff didn’t notice the issue until they saw Facebook comments after the meeting. 

She said they’ll be reaching out to everyone who signed up to determine how they’d like their comments heard, and will evaluate how to make the contact information for technical issues more visible.

UPDATE: This story has been updated to reflect that Arlene Weible spoke as a private Salem resident during the meeting.

RELATED COVERAGE

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Library staffing, budget concerns close the book on 50-year-old delivery program

Salem City Council to discuss alternative cuts

Contact reporter Abbey McDonald: [email protected] or 503-575-1251.

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Abbey McDonald joined the Salem Reporter in 2022. She previously worked as the business reporter at The Astorian, where she covered labor issues, health care and social services. A University of Oregon grad, she has also reported for the Malheur Enterprise, The News-Review and Willamette Week.