PHILADELPHIA — A judge ruled Tuesday that Philadelphia’s mayor cannot close 11 public library branches to save money because an ordinance requires the city council approve such actions.
Common Pleas Judge Idee Fox heard more than a day of testimony before finding that the mayor is bound by a 1988 ordinance that prohibits him from closing any city-owned building without the city council’s approval.
The libraries had been slated to close Thursday, but two lawsuits were filed and Mayor Michael Nutter was booed repeatedly about his decision during a news conference Monday.
He said the cash-strapped city could save about $8 million a year by closing 20 percent of its 54 library branches. The mayor had said the shuttered facilities could reopen with help from private financial partners.
That didn’t go over well with Zachary Hershman, one of a few dozen protesters at the mayor’s news conference. Hershman, 23, said the closing of the library in his Kingsessing neighborhood will lead to more dropouts, unemployment and crime in an already poor and violent area.
The next nearest branch is overcrowded, he said, with long waits for Internet use that many residents need to access online job applications.
Library advocates have been extremely vocal since the mayor announced the budget cuts in November. Seven residents and a municipal union sued last week, contending the library closings are illegal and endanger poorer communities that don’t have the luxuries of big chain bookstores and home Internet access.
The mayor is making other cuts, including lowering limits on curbside trash collection, consolidating fire companies, closing 68 of 81 swimming pools, cutting back on snow removal and cutting funding to the annual New Year’s Day Mummers Parade.
In response to the library cuts, Nutter said he expected books, computers and other materials to stay at the envisioned public-private “knowledge centers.” But he could not say if the facilities would be staffed by librarians.
American Library Association president Jim Rettig said libraries work best as publicly funded entities with trained staff. “It makes as much sense to privatize your libraries as it does to privatize your police force,” Rettig said.
To tell people to use another branch doesn’t help, he added. “Each branch has its own character,” Rettig said. “To say they can go to another branch — if that happens there will be a real adjustment period.”
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