During his first year as mayor, Eric Adams said he was focused on ensuring that city government served the working-class New Yorkers who helped elect him.
But now he is under fire for cutting funding for libraries — a critical lifeline for people who do not have internet access at home or who need after-school tutoring and English language instruction.
The proposed cuts of $13 million this fiscal year and more than $20 million next year have sparked concern among families, elected officials and library leaders. Libraries could respond to the trimmed budget by scaling back hours, workers or programming.
With more than 200 locations across the city, the public library system is a beloved institution where children learn to love books and recently arrived migrants become acclimated to their new home. Before the pandemic, city libraries typically saw about 35 million annual visitors, and many New Yorkers have started to return.
Library leaders raised the alarm about the budget cuts at a recent City Council hearing, which Gothamist first reported. Anthony W. Marx, president of the New York Public Library, said that worrying about where to cut was keeping him up at night, and library leaders added that their services were needed more than ever following the disruption of the pandemic.
“We’d have no choice but to do less, and that would be a great shame for the city,” said Nick Buron, the chief librarian at the Queens Public Library.
City Council leaders are gearing up for a battle with Mr. Adams about his cuts to libraries and other programs like free preschool for 3-year-olds and funding for the City University of New York. A group of 13 left-leaning council members called the mayor’s recent budget adjustments “cruel and dangerous” and argued that they would make the city less stable.
Adrienne Adams, the City Council speaker, said in an interview that the Council would oppose cuts to key services during the next budget cycle, which will begin in earnest on Thursday when Mayor Adams is expected to release his preliminary budget for the next fiscal year.
“The Council has a different vision for our city,” said Ms. Adams. “It focuses on investing in the essential services that our communities rely on to be healthy and safe and that really address the root causes of our greatest challenges.”
“We’re prepared to fight for our vision,” she added.
Ms. Adams, who is not related to the mayor, has been increasingly critical of Mr. Adams, even though they are both relatively moderate Democrats from Queens. They have had public disagreements over his budget cuts to schools and his handling of the migrant crisis.
As he enters his second year in office, Mr. Adams has argued that broad cuts are necessary across city agencies to address a dismal financial forecast. The city is expected to have a deficit of nearly $3 billion next year as federal pandemic aid ends and tax revenue falters.
In an interview, Mr. Adams said he took “no joy” in cutting money for schools and libraries but that it would be “irresponsible” for him not to reduce city spending.
“We made tough fiscal decisions in spite of the people who continually attacked us for it, but the decision was right for New Yorkers,” he said.
A spokeswoman for the mayor, Amaris Cockfield, said in a statement that the Adams administration valued “the important role libraries play in our community” and would work with library leaders to “implement savings initiatives in a way that does not reduce services to New Yorkers.”
The city spends roughly $400 million annually on public libraries — a small fraction of its $100 billion budget. During the city’s last financial downturn, under former Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, funding for libraries was constantly under threat.
John Hyslop, the president of a union that represents library workers in Queens, said he was worried that the city would close libraries on Saturdays as it had considered doing during past budget battles. He said that it was difficult during the Bloomberg years for libraries to plan for the future with so much uncertainty, and that the situation improved under Mr. Bloomberg’s successor, Mayor Bill de Blasio.
“Bill de Blasio benefited from a booming economy, but he didn’t play games with our budget,” Mr. Hyslop said.
The City Council often acted as the “savior” for libraries, Mr. Hyslop said: “That’s who we have to rely on to come bail us out.”
The last few years have been tumultuous for New York City’s libraries. They were closed for months at the height of the pandemic and then offered “grab and go” books after they partially reopened. Toddler story times that were once boisterous events went virtual. As branches began to fully reopen in 2021, the New York Public Library eliminated all late fees in an effort to get people to return. At a time when the city is seeing record homelessness, libraries serve an important role, often offering shelter during the day as well as internet access.
Chi Ossé, a City Council member from Brooklyn who chairs the committee that oversees libraries, said he wanted to vote down the mayor’s budget modification from December that included the additional cuts for libraries.
“It would be really detrimental,” he said. “They’ve trimmed so much fat already.”
But Ms. Adams, the Council speaker, said on Tuesday that the Council decided not to bring the budget modification to a vote. She framed the move as a “rebuke” of the mayor’s cuts while still preserving funding for nonprofits that could have been blocked. Without a yes-or-no vote, the $13 million in cuts to libraries for this year will take effect.
Ms. Adams, who once served on the board of the Queens Public Library, said she viewed libraries as “intergenerational beacons” and would work hard to spare them from further cuts.
“I can’t tell you how passionate I am about making sure that our libraries are intact,” she said.
Mr. Marx, the head of the New York Public Library, said in a statement on Tuesday that the budget cuts would “hurt our patrons and the communities we serve” and that he would “continue our talks with Mayor Adams and the City Council to preserve our levels of funding.”
The Bronx Library Center, the largest public library in the Bronx, was busy on a recent afternoon. Dozens of people waited in the basement for English classes or to apply for an IDNYC card, a municipal identification card that is often used by immigrants. The library has been a welcome center for a recent wave of migrants arriving from the Mexican border, and long lines start to form outside the library an hour before it opens in the morning.
Sadou Barry, an immigrant from Senegal, arrived hoping to join an English writing class. He said he started coming to the library a few months ago to study English grammar books.
“It gives us a chance to have an opportunity,” he said.
Melvin Nunez, 17, said he visited the library when he was bored and wanted to get away from home, and that it felt like a refuge. He read “Deadpool” comic books and worked on his homework.
“I get some places need to get some cuts, but I don’t believe that it should be something so important to the people,” he said. “Libraries are very important things for the community.”