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HOPE FOR CITY LIBRARIES… No shutdowns for now, and maybe none at all

Keep checking out those books: City says 11 library branches will stay open through June

By CATHERINE LUCEY Philadelphia Daily News 215-854-4172

THE NUTTER administration yesterday surrendered to public opinion, saying that 11 libraries targeted for closing would remain open through June.

A judge had blocked Nutter’s plan to close 11 of the city’s 54 libraries to help close a $1 billion budget hole in the city’s five-year plan, a ruling that the city appealed.

But yesterday, Clay Armbrister, Nutter’s chief of staff, said that the city plans to keep the branches open until June 30, the end of the fiscal year.

What happens after that is not clear, but the city’s top health official yesterday said that he had heard the wishes of residents.

"What we heard loud and clear from the public was that the public felt that keeping libraries open is a priority," said Don Schwartz, deputy mayor for health and opportunity.

After closing the $1 billion hole in November, the worsening economy opened it wider, and the city now faces another $1 billion gap, Nutter said. So more cuts are looming. But Schwartz stressed that there will be a public conversation about the city’s options.

The library closures instantly became the most controversial part of Nutter’s November budget cuts. Library advocates stormed City Hall, screamed at Nutter during town-hall meetings and took the fight to court.

"Philadelphians pushed back and they pushed back really loud and really hard," said Amy Dougherty, executive director of the Friends of the Free Library.

In December, Common Pleas Judge Idee Fox ruled in favor of seven library patrons and three Council members who sued Nutter, citing a 20-year-old ordinance requiring Council approval to close city buildings. The city appealed.

Nutter’s public budget process – prompted in part by citizen anger over the lack of input into the last cuts – continued yesterday.

At a budget session, deputy mayors talked about what 10 percent, 20 percent or 30 percent budget reductions could do to their departments. They acknowledged that it wouldn’t be pretty.

"We’re past the point where efficiencies are going to get us very far," said Andy Altman, deputy mayor for planning and economic development. "Now you’re getting into core services."

Rina Cutler, deputy mayor for transportation and utilities, said that the Streets Department was discussing privatizing trash pickup, charging citizens for trash collection or reducing trash-collection days.

Schwartz said that the Health Department is pondering the impact of closing a health center or cutting back on health-center benefits.

At Licenses and Inspections, Altman said that the office is looking at how cuts would impact its ability to issue permits.

As part of his public outreach, Nutter yesterday visited the Station Diner, at 52nd and Market streets, where he talked with patrons over bacon and eggs about the national economic downturn and the Philly budget crisis.

Retired West Philadelphia resident Layton Austin, 61, told Nutter to "try and create jobs for some of these people." He added that if someone "can’t get no job, he’s going to turn to crime."

Peter Fanous, 32, a Cherry Hill resident working on the Market-Frankford elevated project, cautioned Nutter about tax increases.

"People can’t put food on their tables and the government is talking about extra taxes," Fanous said. "It’s not helping. It hurts."

Then he told Nutter: "You’re in a position that’s a no-win situation."

Nutter told the group that he was hopeful that the city would get some money through President Obama’s proposed $825 billion stimulus package, but stressed that he still has to make payroll every two weeks. But he promised that he would work around the clock for the city.

"We’re all in this together," Nutter said. "We’re not going anywhere. You’re not going anywhere."

While Nutter’s breakfast table was largely sympathetic to the city’s troubled financial situation, some people in the diner posed tough questions to the mayor.

Dennis Hopson, 32, of West Philadelphia, came up to Nutter to say that he hasn’t been able to find a job since getting out of prison in September, despite visiting a city office for ex-offenders.

"Go back, because we’ve made some changes," said Nutter, who asked Hopson to give his name to Nutter’s aide. "We’ll see how we can help you out. I appreciate you approaching me. You don’t want to do that other thing. You’ve been down that road."

Hopson, who has four sons, said that he hopes that Nutter can help him. "I wish he would do more for us coming home. He started this program for ex-offenders. Every ex-offender I know says the same thing."


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