Leaders at the Tuscaloosa Public Library warned local media Friday that without an increase in funding, they will likely have to close their two auxiliary branches sometime next year.

In an informal press conference led by TPL's executive director Jennifer Pearson, board president Florence Williams and treasurer Bryan Winter, the leaders said most of the library's funding comes from the cities of Tuscaloosa and Northport as well as the Tuscaloosa County Commission, but that funding is simply not keeping up with inflation and is no longer enough to cover the costs of their employees' salaries and TPL programming.

The Library announced earlier this week that to keep costs as low as possible, they would slash hours of operation at all three of their branches, institute a hiring freeze, cut their annual Summer Reading Program in half and stop offering eight virtual resources that were previously available to library members. 

Friday afternoon, the library's leadership warned even those cuts will not keep TPL afloat long-term and that matters will only get worse unless their funding increases soon.

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"We did a press release earlier in the week concerning the reduction in hours at the two branches and the main branch and I know there were a lot of questions about why we were doing that, so we wanted to give y'all the opportunity to come here and learn and see where we are in terms of funding," Winter said. "Because this is probably the last year that we will even be able to keep the branches open unless we have a significant change in the funding direction."

TPL is primarily funded by those three local governments, but that funding total has decreased by about 5 percent since 2014 even as inflation has climbed by almost 30 percent in the same time period.

There simply is not enough money to continue to pay TPL's 35 full-time employees, operate the main library on Jack Warner Parkway and its Brown and Weaver-Bolden branches and continue offering all the library's free services and programs.

And those programs go deeper than most people realize, Pearson said, from summer reading to internet access initiatives, community events, free virtual resources and much more.

"I think there's a misconception that libraries are obsolete," she said. "But the reality is libraries have evolved, we are not just books."

They have offset the funding discrepancy by spending almost $900,000 from their reserve funds in the last four years, but that well is running dry, necessitating the cuts announced Monday and possibly more in the future.

Now, like the Tuscaloosa County Park and Recreation Authority, the district attorney's office and other local agencies, the library is pushing for more funding from the three local governments.

In Fiscal Year 2023, though, TPL is only slated to receive $28,500 more than they did last year -- the city of Tuscaloosa increased their contribution slightly over 2022 numbers, the county kept theirs level and Northport decreased TPL's agency funding by $3,000 this year, according to data provided by Winter. They needed an increase of $342,277 this year just to keep up with inflation.

"It's all about priorities and if it's not a priority, that's fine," Winter said. "But we don't want anyone to be surprised when those two branches close."

Like PARA and the DA's office, the library is hoping to secure a permanent funding source or agreement instead of petitioning the governments every year for an ever-shrinking piece of the pie, but that would likely require a tax increase and there is little political appetite to implement one.

For now, they encouraged fans of the library and the innumerable services and programs they offer to reach out to locally elected officials and emphasize TPL's importance to the community.

The Thread will have more details on the library's financial woes soon to come -- stay connected for updates as they become available.

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