By Chloe Elder
Ahead of the 2021 fiscal year, the city of West Palm Beach addresses the economic shortfall caused by the COVID-19 pandemic in its annual budget. Not unlike any other municipality, business or individual, cuts must be made to reckon with a revenue stream impacted by lockdowns and uncertainty. What is exceptional, however, is that the current proposal balances the budget on the backs of two community services.
The Library and Parks and Recreation face extreme and inequitable budget cuts for the 2021 fiscal year. Already, emails have poured in to reject the current budget proposal and in support of the Library and the Parks and Recreation Department.
The Parks and Recreation Department is looking at a $2.2 million decrease to its budget, meaning laying off 36.25 full-time employees. Mandel Public Library would face a loss of $1.6 million – one third of its 2020 budget. This equates to staff layoffs for 12.5 full-time employees and 12 library pages (on-call/part-time staff members). The library faces the highest-percentage cut to its budget than any other department in the city.
In an environment in which their services are essential, these departments have been singled out for defunding by Mayor Keith James. In the August 10 City Commission meeting, the mayor explained his reasoning for the disproportionately large cut. “Certain departments can telecommute easily. People can work from home. Typically, the programs in Parks and Rec and in the library that we looked at were not the types of programs that folks could telecommute,” he said.
In fact, the Mandel Public Library has adapted to meet the needs of its patrons during this pandemic. The library currently offers: a walk-up pickup service; mobile printing and print pickup; digital collections in the form of e-books, audiobooks, movies, TV and music downloads; remote résumé and job help; grab-and-go craft kits; and a full calendar of virtual events including author talks, tech classes and yoga.
Similarly, the official social media channels for West Palm Beach showcase a fishing camp, soccer and basketball clinics, and drive-in movie theater all hosted in the city’s public parks.
Libraries are a public good. Not only do they offer free access to entertainment and information, but they also facilitate that access by means of their dedicated staff. Library workers are information professionals who can direct and assist patrons in all walks of life.
After this budget proposal, James highlighted the benefits of the Parks and Recreation department at the Aug. 14 groundbreaking ceremony for the new South Olive Tennis Center (due 2021).
“Parks and Recreation facilities reflect the quality of life in the city of West Palm Beach,” James said. “These facilities promote livability, health and wellness and a sense of place and community. All of these are important here in the city of West Palm Beach. Parks and Recreation facilities are spaces where neighbors can connect with one another, where one can enjoy their favorite activities (in this case, tennis) and where our youngest residents can learn, be inspired and be mentored. They are also sources of great community and neighborhood pride.”
When indoor spaces pose serious risks, public parks are one of the few areas in which people may benefit from open-air activities.
Libraries and parks support the most vulnerable in a community – those without access to reliable technology and safe outdoor spaces in their homes and neighborhoods. Young people can participate in safe and enriching activities outside of school in parks as well as libraries. Job seekers can find employment advice and access to the technology needed to make applications online. The elderly can enjoy community in a socially distanced outdoor space or learn to use the technology that connects us.
Drastic cuts like these are not equal across the city. Indeed, while the city’s 2021 budget is in deficit, there are still departmental budgetary increases totaling $5.7 million. And over the next three years, more full-time police officers will be hired this coming year as a result of an outside grant in the amount of $3.75 million from the U.S. Department of Justice.
Emily Kenyon, a resident of West Palm Beach, is part of the local political advocacy group called The Time Is Now. Kenyon and others from TTIN provided public comment in person at the Aug. 10 commission meeting and plan to organize the community around the next public budget meeting Aug. 24, which is Monday.
“We took it upon ourselves to notify the community about these significant budget cuts that would directly impact their quality of life,” Kenyon said. “Most people have no idea what is going on at these commission meetings. We try to bridge the gap between local politics and the general public because the community can and should have a say in their city’s spending.”
Continued robust local response is necessary to make clear that the community does not support the current budget proposal and that the library and parks are valued by residents and visitors alike.
Take a moment to call or write to West Palm Beach city officials (listed below) or add your public comment for the Aug. 24 budget meeting. Public comments may be given in person at the meeting, by voicemail at 561-320-2679 or by email to email@example.com. Comments cannot exceed 3 minutes total and remote submissions must be given by 12 pm on the day of the meeting. Please see wpb.org for more information.
City of West Palm Beach
401 Clematis Street
West Palm Beach, FL 33401
Mayor Keith James
Faye Johnson, City Administrator
Armando Fana, Assistant City Administrator (supervises library)
Kelly Shoaf, District 1 Commissioner
Cory Neering, District 2 Commissioner
Christy Fox, District 3 Commissioner
(The Mandel Public Library is in this district)
Joseph Peduzzi, District 4 Commissioner
Christina Lambert, District 5 Commissioner