ATLANTIC CITY — People increasingly want more from the Atlantic City Free Public Library. Borrowing, computer sessions and requests for help are all up substantially from years ago.
But the library is like this cash-strapped city. The money is drying up.
Funding was nearly halved in two years as the city’s value declined. More decreases in funding will result in future service cuts.
The library held a community meeting last month and will hold more to plan for how to use available funds.
“This is the most challenging financial climate we have experienced in the past 30 years,” library director Maureen Sherr Frank said.
What if I told you there was a place where you could read hundreds of comics and graphic novels for free?
And as the library is experiencing cutbacks in money and personnel, people are using it more.
In 2005, the library recorded 335,000 visits, 151,000 items borrowed, 37,000 public computer sessions and 33,000 requests for information.
Last year, the library logged 530,000 visits, 290,000 items borrowed, 89,000 public computer sessions and 72,000 requests for information.
New Jersey laws provide a minimum level of funding for library services based on the equalized valuation of the towns they serve, Frank said.
The city’s valuation has plunged from $20.5 billion in 2008 to about $6.6 billion today. As a result, the library’s funding has dropped because the city is receiving less in taxes, Frank said.
In just two years, library funding has dropped by 45 percent. In 2014, library funding was $5.03 million. This year, the library is operating on $2.8 million of municipal funding.
There is a concern that the funding declines will continue if values decrease more and with the implementation of the PILOT legislation.
That legislation, passed by state lawmakers in May as part of the Atlantic City rescue package, bars casinos from appealing property taxes by allowing them to make fixed payments in lieu of taxes for 10 years.
As a result, Frank said the library would not receive casino tax dollars during that time.
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But state Sen. Jim Whelan, D-Atlantic, a sponsor of the legislation, said it was his understanding that the library would still receive money even though it is not specifically spelled out in the measure, as with the school district and Atlantic County.
The city workforce has been reduced from 1,255 to 894 during the past two years. Library staffing also has been reduced since 2014. Due to layoffs, resignations and retirements, library staffing has been reduced from 47 to 26 employees. The budget decreased by $2 million, which was done through both salaries and across-the-board cuts.
Staff reductions have resulted in fewer hours of operation at the main library on North Tennessee Avenue and the Richmond Avenue branch on Ventnor Avenue. Such cutbacks limit community access to computers and resources, Frank said.
Richmond Avenue used to be open eight hours a day, five days a week. Now, it is open from noon to 5 p.m. Tuesdays to Thursdays, which means a 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. worker can’t use it.
The main library is no longer open on Sundays. It used to be open as late as 8 p.m. Mondays through Wednesdays. Now, the latest it stays open is 6:30 p.m., and that is only Tuesdays through Thursdays.
Tawane Corbin, 36, of Atlantic City, recently visited the library with her son, Mahkai Corbin, a first-grader at the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. School Complex.
Corbin’s future Monday visits will be focused on learning for her son, while Friday visits will be for learning and fun.
“He does puzzles well. He is good at drawing and coloring,” said Corbin, who added the library is within walking distance of her home. “I come and use the computer. I print things out. I come and get DVDs for them (her children) and books and movies for myself.”
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A public forum was held last month to gather information about community needs and priorities, Frank said.
Comments at the forum confirmed the importance of services for children, “of providing information and workshops for lifelong learning, of supporting members seeking to obtain employment and maintaining the Atlantic City Heritage Collections,” Frank said.
The need to continue the library’s free training sessions, which include job-skills sessions, English as a second language and literacy workshops, as well as providing access to books, DVDs and electronic resources, were all priorities, Frank said.