Budget Erodes Library Service in Needy Areas; DRASTIC CUTS Six Libraries Will Lose a Combined Total of 130 Operating Hours SCHOOL RESOURCE Many Schools near Those Libraries Have Received 'F' Grades

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Byline: TIA MITCHELL

The Murray Hill library might be one of the least utilized in Jacksonville, but it's a daily destination for 12-year-old Jamari Rolls.

Each afternoon, his mom picks him up from school and drops him off at the library for a couple of hours while she finishes her shift at work. He sits at a table in the teen area and finishes his homework.

"If I'm done, some of my friends come here; we'll talk," Jamari said.

Unless the City Council intervenes, he'll have to find somewhere else to go starting Oct. 1. The Murray Hill branch will close every Monday, Wednesday and Friday.

It's one of five branches slated to have hours sharply reduced as part of the city's efforts to curb spending next fiscal year in the face of plummeting revenues.

The Maxville branch would only be open two days a week. Three others - Brentwood, Brown Eastside and Westbrook - would open their doors for only four or five hours a day. Brentwood will also close on Fridays.

A sixth, the Bradham-Brooks Northwest library, will have its weekly hours reduced from 60 to 50 to reflect its downgraded status from a regional branch.

Mayor John Peyton and library officials have been warning of cutbacks for months, saying the reduced hours are more fallout from a $100 million budget shortfall. The cuts were part of the mayor's plan, even with a proposed tax rate increase.

The City Council Finance Committee signed off on the library budget, including the impacts on the six branches, during the 10-member panel's final hearing Wednesday. The full council must approve a balanced budget before the fiscal year begins Oct. 1.

Only Councilman Johnny Gaffney spoke against the changes, saying the community he represents didn't deserve to have library access limited. The Brentwood and Brown Eastside branches are in his district.

"We need to adjust these hours," he told Library Director Barbara Gubbin at the hearing. "It doesn't make sense. It's embarrassing."

Gubbin told him the decisions were difficult, but necessary, in order to balance her budget.

"I've been a public librarian for more than 30 years. It is not my pleasure to reduce library services," she said.

The mayor's office required Gubbin to slice $1.1 million from her budget, which led to the elimination of 21 positions. Fewer people means less staff for the branches, which means hours have to be slashed, she said.

The Finance Committee later required an additional 3 percent trim, which forced Gubbin to find $700,000 more to cut. She did it by reducing travel spending and eliminating night janitorial services.

Of the library system's $40.4 million budget, 45 percent is spent on salaries and benefits, 15 percent goes to buying materials and supplies, and the rest is reserved for fixed costs, such as utilities, information technology and the libraries' share of other city expenses.

To pick the branches affected by reduced hours, Gubbin said she reviewed usage and circulation numbers as well as geography, the size of the building and the cost to operate it. Murray Hill, for example, has an attendance rate that is less than half of the average for the entire system.

In the end, it made more sense to cut hours in locations where use is far below average for the 21-branch system, she said. The five branches with the big reductions in hours will now be called "satellite" or "express" locations.

Several will focus on providing services for adults, especially those looking for jobs or needing computer access to apply for government assistance. According to Gubbin, those branches are experiencing declining demand in the evenings from children because programs at schools, community centers and parks are providing homework help and supervision.

But most of the branches losing hours are also located in some of the city's poorest neighborhoods, raising questions about fairness. …