Providence libraries in limbo forces Fox, Taveras to intervene

A few years back, a group of unhappy Providence library patrons launched an advocacy campaign called “Not About the Buildings.” Today, though, the future of the city’s library system is all about the buildings – and who owns them.

That’s the question at the heart of the fight between two similarly named nonprofits: Providence Public Library (PPL), which used to run the nine branch libraries and still runs the Central Branch on Empire Street, and Providence Community Library (PCL), the newly formed organization which took over the branches in 2009.

PPL says it owns seven of the branch buildings, so PCL should pay to rent them. PCL says the buildings were paid for by patrons and taxpayers who shouldn’t have to pay rent to continue to use them as branches, particularly since PPL voted to close five of them in 2008 – the threat that led to PCL’s creation. has now learned this latest civic crisis in the capital city is drawing the attention of some of Rhode Island’s most powerful politicians, including House Speaker Gordon Fox and Mayor Angel Taveras, as well as City Council President Michael Solomon.

“I am highly supportive of the community library branches in Providence, including the Rochambeau Branch that my constituents have heavily utilized for decades,” Fox said last week. “I have spoken with Council President Solomon and I share his concerns. I am exploring all avenues to see if the state can play a role in resolving this troubling situation.”

That’s no small threat, since the General Assembly provided PPL with $1.6 million in 2009-10, or 36 percent of its $4.5 million budget. Solomon told he thinks lawmakers’ involvement could break the impasse between the two library groups. “With the help of the General Assembly, I think we may be able to resolve this,” he said.

Unlike some cities, Providence’s city government does not actually own and run its public library system. From 1878 to 2009, that job was handled by PPL, a private nonprofit, with taxpayer subsidies. But after years of rancor over PPL leaders’ threats to close branches, the Cicilline administration shifted their management – and the $3.6 million annual city appropriation that helps pay for them – to PCL.

However, the status of the actual branch buildings still hasn’t been resolved. PPL holds the title to seven of them, and has declined to transfer ownership to the city. The current lease agreement will expire July 1, and it’s unclear what will happen to the branches after that.

A source familiar with the negotiations told that PPL is seeking around $700,000 in annual rent or a one-time payout of $11 million for the seven buildings.

PPL spokeswoman Tonia Mason denied that her group has asked for a one-time payout in exchange for the branches, but said it does want to receive “some rent compensation” for their use, much as the city pays to rent part of the Boys & Girls Club building for the Fox Point branch. “However, a number of flexible options have been proposed,” she added.

But paying to buy or rent the branches is a nonstarter for PCL Chairman Marcus Mitchell, who said his organization and the city cannot afford to do so and shouldn’t have to anyway because taxpayers “already paid for them” back when the buildings were built. Solomon said the same thing.

“I’m not frustrated – I’m angry,” Mitchell said of the negotiations. Because PCL does not actually own the buildings, it’s missed out on foundation funding and other grants that could be used to make badly needed repairs at them, he said. A lawsuit the city filed last fall against PPL over that issue is still pending.

Taveras spokeswoman Melissa Withers said the mayor is monitoring the situation closely. Gonzalo Cuervo, his deputy chief of staff, is taking a lead role in the negotiations and the library issue comes up weekly in senior leadership meetings, she said.

“The mayor is 100% committed to helping these two groups work it out for the benefit of the people of Providence,” Withers said. “We take it very seriously.”

What happens if there’s no agreement on July 1? Mason said PPL “can no longer afford to subsidize the branch system” but has not “considered any action if the issue isn’t resolved by then.” PCL sent layoff notices last month to all 65 of its employees in case the branches are no longer available.

“This is a tough time for the city,” Withers said. “The last thing we need is to have libraries shut down. It would be a tragedy for the neighborhoods. It’s not what anyone wants.”

Taveras and Solomon expressed strong support for PCL and its stewardship of the neighborhood branches. Mitchell said his new group is “in the black” and has managed to keep all nine branches open on an annual budget of under $5 million, significantly less than PPL said it needed to do the job. “I think a lot of Fortune 500 companies would be envious of the job we’ve done,” he said.

Though officials said it’s not a sticking point in the current negotiations, another outstanding issue between the two sides is PPL’s eight-figure endowment. The fund was valued at about $27 million in June 2009, according to IRS records, and some PCL supporters argue a portion of that money should be transferred to the new organization, as well.

(photos: Providence Community Library)

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