St. Paul public libraries will operate next year with fewer staff and shorter hours than before the pandemic, due to a nearly 7% cut from the 13-branch system.

Under Mayor Melvin Carter’s proposed 2021 budget, nearly every city department will have to reduce spending and eliminate vacant positions to help fill a nearly $20 million deficit. For the libraries, a proposed $1.3 million cut would affect library hours because it pays for fewer staff.

“When you look for a reduction of over a million dollars from this budget for a system of our size, it’s pretty difficult to find anything to give,” library director Catherine Penkert told council members during a budget presentation Wednesday.

The library system “has been down for a while, even before this,” said Kim Horton, senior communications director for the Friends of the St. Paul Public Library.

Over the past five years, library staffing has stayed about the same, but services that staff provides have increased, Penkert said. Over that time, the annual library budget has risen about 18% — less than the safety and inspections, fire, police and parks and recreation departments.

Heading into 2020, the library department cut spending on building maintenance, organizational memberships and software and supplies; eliminated a mobile printing service and sold a car that delivered mobile tech programming.

Next year, under Carter’s proposal, the library workforce would drop from the equivalent of 177 full-time employees to 162, Penkert said.

“People will notice the reduction in service from the libraries next year,” Horton said. “It’s going to be tough.”

Like cities across the country, St. Paul is entering a painful budget season due to the COVID-19 pandemic and resulting economic crisis. Carter’s proposed 2021 budget relies on widespread spending cuts to avoid a tax levy increase, staff layoffs or dipping into emergency reserves.

Even so, Carter said during his library budget address — a speech delivered from George Latimer Central Library and posted online — that he is prioritizing continuing services at library branch locations, online and at the traveling Bookmobile. Though the proposed budget would eliminate about 16 vacant full time-equivalent jobs, it would also add cultural liaisons, a program coordinator, front-line workers, supervisors and a part-time custodian.

There would also be money for continuing virtual story times, adding mobile Wi-Fi hot spots and providing distance learning support for children learning from home during the pandemic.

“These investments, and our libraries, will be as vital as ever amid the ongoing challenges we face,” Carter said.

Library branches have been closed for much of the year, but the department still launched a variety of services in response to the pandemic, including contact-free materials pickup, virtual programming and Career Labs in partnership with Ramsey County. Librarians even sewed cloth face masks.

Five branches have had a phased reopening, with limits on how many patrons can be inside a library building at one time. But even if there’s a COVID-19 vaccine by Jan. 1, Penkert said, there won’t be enough staff to return to normal. It’s uncertain how long that will continue, she said, and whether the libraries will be able to recover.

“On days when I’m feeling hopeful, I can imagine a future where this becomes a transformation opportunity — it becomes an inflection point and we rebuild a community workforce through libraries,” Penkert said. “However, there are no guarantees. There’s nothing automatic here about a recovery for our library system.”