May 12, 2011 at 1:00 am

Detroit Library admits plan to close branches based on flawed math

Library officials have been criticized in recent weeks for spending $2.3 million to revamp the Main Librarys South Wing including chairs and trash cans that cost $1,100 apiece while readying layoffs and branch closures. (John T. Greilick / The Detroit News)

Detroit — The Detroit Public Library is preparing to shutter as many as 10 branches and lay off one-third of its workers because of financial projections city officials say were a misunderstanding.

City finance staffers say they told library counterparts in March that 20 percent of the city's property taxes go uncollected.

Library staffers took that to mean property tax revenues would decline 20 percent a year until 2015 and prepared plans for branch closures, which were expected to be considered today but those talks were postponed.

"We want to make sure the numbers we put out there are the most accurate," library spokesman A.J. Funchess said this morning.

But Mayor Dave Bing's staff says the library's math is all wrong.

"That is an incorrect assumption based on the numbers the city has presented," said Dan Lijana, a Bing spokesman. "To say city property taxes are going to decline 20 percent is not accurate."

Now, at least two commissioners informed of the mix-up by The Detroit News say they may tweak their controversial downsizing plan. But the system already has notified employees that 111 of 376 staffers will be laid off by June.

"I need to consult with staff but, if that's what it is, it would be much better now," said Commissioner Anthony Adams. "We need to verify all this information now."

The mix-up could be the latest embarrassment for library officials who've been criticized in recent weeks for spending $2.3 million to revamp the Main Library's South Wing — including chairs and trash cans that cost $1,100 apiece — while readying layoffs and branch closures.

Tim Cromer, the library's chief administrative officer, acknowledged the goof.

"We totally misunderstood the conversation we had at that meeting," with city officials, Cromer said.

But that doesn't mean the library's troubles are over.

The system — which is mainly funded by a 4.63-mill property tax —still faces an $11 million shortfall this year, and Cromer said he believes that taxes will decline 20 percent to $23 million in the fiscal year starting in July.

Cromer said the city's estimates have been wrong before: This year the library budgeted $35 million in property tax revenues and only received $28 million.

Even so, Cromer said the library officials likely will retool their projections for the following three years.

Jonathan Kinloch, a library commissioner, said branch closures are still likely.

"We have to realign but we may not have to realign so severely," said Kinloch, who occasionally contributes to a Detroit News blog.

Union officials said they were always dubious about the library's projections of dramatically dwindling taxes.

"I never believed it," said Michael Wells, president of UAW Local 2200, representing about 120 library staffers.

"There was not going to be anybody left in this city. The number was far too drastic. I told (administrators) I didn't believe it."

Even so, he acknowledged property taxes are declining and cuts will follow.

"We all want them to get it right but we don't want them to make decisions on false information," Wells said.

But the number controversy could spread to City Hall.

In a deficit elimination plan forwarded to the state and City Council last week, Mayor Dave Bing's staff predicted that property tax revenues will dip 5 percent between the fiscal year that begins in July to the 2013 fiscal year to $126 million before stabilizing for the next three years.

"Efforts to attract new business and create strong neighborhoods … are likely to increase this revenue stream as will project general improvement in the overall economic conditions during this period," the report reads.

To Council President Pro Tem Gary Brown, those predictions seem too rosy for a city plagued with foreclosures and whose population has declined 25 percent since 2000 to 713,777.

"All this happy talk is not being backed up," Brown said. "You have to be consistent with these figures."

cmacdonald@detnews.com

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