Balancing the Books

The financial challenges facing the Milwaukee Public Library

December 2020


The Milwaukee Public Library (MPL) is at a crossroads. At a time when the demand for library services is likely to grow as a result of partially shuttered schools and increased numbers of unemployed residents seeking to use library resources, MPL faces the prospect of future funding reductions from the city of Milwaukee in light of the city’s own fiscal challenges.

In response, MPL’s Board of Trustees created a “Financial Sustainability Task Force” to consider possible solutions. The Task Force’s key findings and recommendations include the following:

  • City support has been flat. City funding supports the bulk of MPL’s total operating budget, but that funding grew by only $686,000 (3.1%) from 2011-2019, which equates to a $2.5 million decrease (-10%) when adjusted for inflation. In light of the need to accommodate inflationary increases in salaries and other items, MPL was forced to cut staff and reduce services during that period. The city’s worsening financial prognosis makes even the prospect of flat funding somewhat dubious going forward.
  • Changes to MPL’s governance and structure should be considered but are impractical for now. Task Force members agreed that comprehensive structural changes should be considered to ensure financial sustainability for MPL, including possible creation of an independent library district with taxing authority or a countywide cultural district that would support MPL and local cultural institutions. However, they agreed that because those and other structural solutions involving new funding would require state approval, they are unlikely to be approved in the near future and should be shelved for now in light of the immediacy of MPL’s challenges.
  • New partnerships and earned revenue possibilities should be pursued but would not provide meaningful long-term relief. The Task Force also focused on actions MPL could take independently or in partnership with other local entities. Those included enhanced partnerships with Milwaukee Public Schools, other Milwaukee County libraries, or local nonprofit youth development organizations; and options to grow earned revenues like using MPL facilities to host galas and weddings. However, while these ideas were deemed to hold some promise, the Task Force agreed they would not be lucrative enough to meaningfully change MPL’s fiscal paradigm.
  • Carving out a larger role for the MPL Foundation was seen as the most effective short-term approach. The Task Force ultimately recommended that the MPL Foundation be approached to consider modifying its previous manner of support, either by increasing annual contributions or allowing its funding to support ongoing operations. Currently, Foundation monies only support extra programming or services made possible by its contributions. Task Force members acknowledged that such a request should be accompanied by a possible maintenance-of-effort financial commitment from the city and a greater say for the Foundation in MPL operations.

The recommendation to seek a re-defined public-private partnership between MPL and its foundation was justified, in part, by the argument that the “add-on” programming traditionally supported by the Foundation would be diluted if MPL is forced to close branches or reduce hours. However, Task Force members underscored that such an enhanced partnership should be viewed not as a comprehensive solution, but as a “life preserver” that would buy some time before significant service reductions again may need to be contemplated.