HELENA — Budget cuts to the Montana State Library will reduce services to vision impaired people who utilize the Talking Book Library to read books and access important documents.
The library hosted a public meeting on Tuesday to discuss how it could make budget cuts mandated by the Legislature. A 5 percent reduction at each agency and a 6 percent vacancy savings requires the library to make $309,178 in cuts each year of the biennium. As part of a bill signed by the governor this session, a further $681,000 in cuts could be made to the library if the state does not reach legislative revenue projections.
“The state library really cannot continue in its current form if we lose approximately $1 million out of our $6 million budget,” Jennie Stapp, the state librarian, said.
The cuts introduced on Tuesday by the Montana State Library Commission to make up the 5 percent agency reduction and vacancy savings will affect the Talking Book Library, which serves people certified as blind, low vision or have a disability that prevents them from using physical materials. The proposed cuts merge the Talking Book Library and eliminate the program’s director and one of three reader’s advisers. Stapp said a reader’s adviser builds relationships with patrons and recommends genres and books because people are not able to traditionally browse aisles of books. Advisers help patrons choose the 7,000 books sent out each week, she said.
“In terms of our ability to provide that level of contact, that will be impacted,” she said.
To meet the first round of cuts, the commission is also planning to close the reading room in the lower level of the library to save $100,000 in rent per year.
If state revenues do not meet projections, the library will reduce funding for the Montana Natural Heritage Program by 25 percent and its resource sharing budget by 50 percent. If both sets of cuts are made, the library will lose 12 of its 44 positions. With fewer staff members, Stapp said existing staff will have to pick up additional responsibilities.
The majority of public comment came from people who are blind or vision impaired. They called the Talking Book Library a lifeline and asked the commission to find an alternative way to make cuts. Anywhere from 2,000 to 3,000 people use the services each year.
Vicky Greaney said she’s used the Talking Book Library since 1983.
“I would like you to consider that the Talking Book Library saves lives,” she said. “I never thought in my lifetime I would see books and newspapers be taken away.”
Jocelyn DeHaas said Talking Books offers people important information like the ability to read the news or a voting manual, but it also serves as a crucial connection for people who are blind.
“I know it saved my father’s life,” DeHaas said. “What do you do when you lose your vision? You sit in the dark. And then somebody introduced him to talking books and it opened the world back up to him.”
When it came time for the public to provide suggestions for alternative cuts or ways to raise money, some said they would be willing to pay a small fee.
Bruce Newell, chair of the commission, reminded people they are already paying for services when they pay their taxes.
“Well, I paid my taxes and I’m losing my services,” Judy Neely, who represents the Montana Association for the Blind, said.
Others asked about the possibility of raising taxes to provide revenue, although most of the measures to increase revenues made by the governor’s office were rejected by Republicans this session.
In addition to reducing services to people who are blind, Stapp said other services will be hindered, although it’s more difficult to understand the impact. Staff members won’t have the same time devoted to managing and providing access to data and fewer statewide geographic information system data layers will be regularly maintained and updated.
Brian Anderson with the Montana Department of Transportation, said the data provided by the state library goes into every single system at the agency and ties into hundreds of millions of dollars in funding.
“This is a big, big loss. The state library has been a focal point of GIS and we’re actually nationally regarded for that,” he said. “If you’re not familiar with GIS, it helps in more ways than you can even imagine.”
Assuming the proposals are adopted, the library will leave a marketing and communications position vacant, lose the state data coordinator and lose staff members who have an institutional knowledge after decades of service, Stapp said.
The commission will adopt proposals at their meeting on June 14 at the Montana State Library.