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Editorial: City’s future demands superb library system

Updated: November 28, 2011 10:08AM

Public libraries have a money problem. Their costs are immediate and local, but their benefits to society accrue over many years and over a wide area.

So it’s no wonder libraries are one of the first places mayors turn to when it’s time to cut the budget. Probably no one whose life has been changed by books has ever sought out and thanked the mayor who provided the library funding.

At a time when Chicago is grappling with huge budget problems, we shouldn’t be surprised that the Chicago Public Library is in line for some big-time cuts. But we are surprised at how big those proposed cuts are.

Though the library accounts for only 3 percent of the city’s budget, more than half of the 517 proposed layoffs citywide would come from the library system.

The layoffs would undercut day-to-day operations, and branch library hours would be reduced by eight hours a week, possibly by closing buildings on Monday and Friday mornings.

That’s a lot of pain in exchange for budgetary savings of roughly $10 million a year, which would put only a tiny dent in the city’s $636 million projected shortfall.

Under Mayor Richard M. Daley, about 120 library workers were laid off just two years ago and hours were reduced. Usage is down, but even so, about 11.6 million people walked through the doors of a Chicago library last year.

In defense of his plans, Mayor Rahm Emanuel points out that other cities have closed library buildings while he would keep all of Chicago’s 78 locations open.

Remember, this is a proposed budget. There’s room for discussion, room to ask if we are making the right trims. We know there are hard decisions everywhere you look. But before the City Council signs off on this spending plan in November, aldermen should seriously debate whether the proposed library paring is just too deep.

We also have serious concerns about proposed cuts to the city health department.

Emanuel wants to consolidate 12 mental health clinics into six facilities.

He also wants to transfer duties of six primary health-care clinics to privately run clinics. These clinics offer vital, safety-net services for Chicago’s neediest and must be protected.

City Hall staffers insist these changes will create needed efficiencies and could even enhance services. But several aldermen and advocates have raised legitimate questions about whether the true effect will be a reduction in services, particularly in mental health.

We are also concerned about deep cuts to the Department of Family and Support Services. A hearing covering that department is set for Nov. 1, and we hope to hear how the city plans to minimize the impact on an agency that supports the homeless, domestic violence victims and at-risk youth.

Core municipal services, such as libraries, are in great demand. People use libraries for early childhood literacy programs, lifetime learning, Internet and computer access and job searches. Across the country, the number of library visits is rising.

If you leaf through the history books in your local library, you’ll see that the societies that prosper are those with enlightened plans for the future.

We know times are tough, but in making overall cuts, let’s be sure we make them wisely.

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