Fort Worth officials make adjustments that could keep libraries open

FORT WORTH -- Three libraries might stay open and the parks department might remain a free-standing department after city officials made some key adjustments Thursday to their proposed budget for the upcoming year.

Other changes may be coming, too, as the City Council works toward its scheduled approval of the budget Sept. 21.

City Manager Dale Fisseler is trying to cut $73 million from the $1.3 billion budget to offset the decline in sales and property taxes caused by the recession. Most departments were asked to cut 10 percent from their budgets, and the police and fire departments were asked to cut 5 percent.

Fisseler's original proposal included closing the Ridglea, Northside and Meadowbrook branches in December.

The council received dozens of letters opposing the idea, and the nonprofit Fort Worth Public Library Foundation offered to run all three branches using private donations.

Under the proposal announced Thursday, the three branches would remain open for 20 hours a week until October 2011.

The city would continue to run the Ridglea branch.

A consortium of nonprofits -- the Fort Worth Chamber of Commerce, Tarrant County Workforce Solutions and Friends of the Public Library -- would provide funding for the Meadowbrook and Northside branches. Those branches would be staffed by part-timers working on contract, Assistant City Manager Charles Daniels said.

By October 2011, the library foundation would take over operation of the Ridglea and Northside branches.

The other groups would continue to run the Meadowbrook branch, Daniels said.

No formal action has been taken, but Assistant City Manager Tom Higgins said during a City Council workshop Thursday that, "We're very encouraged we're going to be able to come back with an agreement."

Some council members questioned the idea of cutting the hours at the branches from 40 to 20 a week.

"Does 20 hours per week really meet the need ... at that library?" asked Councilman Sal Espino, whose district includes the Northside branch.

Councilman W.B. "Zim" Zimmerman said the city needs to look at the whole library system.

Mayor Mike Moncrief said the plan is better than the alternative.

"Once those doors close, it's tough to reopen those doors," he said. "What we're talking about here is keeping those doors open."

Merger on hold

City officials say they want to further study the idea of merging the parks and library departments, which is another of the major cost-cutting ideas under consideration. Thirty-three positions would be eliminated, including the parks director's job.

A committee from the parks and library boards will "look at the entire process to look at areas of potential savings as well as any downsides that might be out there," Daniels said.

The study would take six months to a year.

"The proposed merger would not take place Oct. 1," Daniels said.

Several groups, including the city Parks Advisory Board, had sent letters opposing the merger.

The parks board went so far as to reverse itself, offering to support the closing of city pools in exchange for keeping the departments separate.

Restoring fire cuts

Next week, the council is set to discuss other parts of the budget, including the Fire Department.

Fire Chief Rudy Jackson has already told the council that the only way he can cut his budget by 5 percent is to cut personnel costs.

A lot of the savings will come from so-called "constant staffing overtime," which is used to provide extra crews at high-traffic stations.

If the cuts are approved, about 12 stations that have more than one truck or engine will be reduced to a single crew. That could increase response times by as much as one minute and 50 seconds, Jackson has said.

Moncrief said restoring cuts to the Fire Department is a "top priority."

Mike Lee, 817-390-7539

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