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Monday, July 28, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 58.0° F  Fair
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Walker budget cuts target Wisconsin libraries
Materials sharing, Braille service are threatened

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Under Gov. Scott Walker's proposed budget, Wisconsin libraries would see their funding requests cut by more than $18.9 million in 2012 alone, threatening a wide variety of services, including those for job-seekers and the blind.

Here in the capital, "My goal is to keep all the libraries open with the same hours," says Barb Dimick, director of the Madison Public Library. "We're going to all be hurt."

She resists commenting on the planned expansion of Madison's central branch, noting the sensitive and uncertain political atmosphere, statewide and locally. "I am hopeful that this will go forward," she says. "It's under discussion and under consideration."

Cuts to Wisconsin library budgets come in three areas. State aid to school libraries would be cut by $4.6 million. Funding to the state's 17 public library systems - such as the South Central Library System, which serves Dane and six other counties - would be cut by $13.5 million, essentially ending materials sharing.

The effects of cuts could be exacerbated if Walker is successful in eliminating a statute that separately specifies library "maintenance of effort." Without maintenance of effort, a city could slash its library support and instead attempt to rely on services or materials provided by a neighboring community.

State talking book and Braille services would also be cut by 10%.

The figures come from the Department of Public Instruction and the Wisconsin Library Association, which on April 6 issued the first of what it anticipates will be several "legislative alerts" to workers and patrons to restore funding.

The final impact is unknown. Shared revenue remains a wild card, as do employee benefits. Madison renegotiated union contracts before the governor's budget repair bill passed, so the impact here is delayed, but many library workers elsewhere are departing, to escape a cut in benefits.

"Officially? Nobody's saying they're taking retirement, but people are dropping like flies," says Rhonda Puntney, Wisconsin Library Association president.

The cuts come at a particularly bad time, as workers struggle to recover from the recession, says Puntney.

"It's not just books and story times and computer access," she says. "We're helping people look for jobs and learn computer skills, so they can apply for jobs. That's been a really big focus, especially for adult services. A lot of places have really stepped up, especially places like Racine and Beloit, with programs specifically geared toward job hunters.

"I'd hate to see that kind of service fall through the cracks, because there's no place else for these folks to go."

In Madison, Dimick says, there are library programs covering jobs, health, taxes and financial literacy. "We call ourselves a learning center. We have more programs than we ever have had in my tenure."

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