Jul 7, 2017

Subsidized by taxpayers, Cody library cafe keeps losing money

Park County Commissioner Joe Tilden posed a question to county library leaders last month: “What’s more important to you, buying new books or keeping the Bistro open?”

Tilden was referring to the Cody library’s Biblio Bistro. The county-owned and -operated cafe sells sandwiches, soups, coffee, smoothies and other foods and beverages while serving as a public meeting place.
 
It’s also heavily subsidized.

Preliminary budget documents show that, from last July through May, the Bistro lost nearly $46,300. 

The figures mean the restaurant brought in an average of about $200 per day in sales — only covering about half of its expenses.

In the next fiscal year, which started Saturday, library officials project the Biblio Bistro will again run in the red and cost the county $49,556. The losses will continue to be absorbed as part of the Park County Library System’s overall budget.

“I’m just pointing out that, if you have deficiencies in other areas, there’s some money there that could be had,” Tilden said of the Bistro during a June 20 discussion of the budget, adding, “It’s a wonderful thing, but it’s an amenity.”

“But then so is a library, in a sense,” responded Park County Library System Director Frances Clymer. “It’s a public service; it’s a public utility that serves people from every walk of life — man, woman, child — regardless of whether they’ve got lots of bucks or no bucks. And to me, that’s really important to provide a community living room — basically [that] is what the Bistro is — for people who maybe have no place else to meet friends in a comfortable way.”

The kitchen and dining area came with the building, known as the Park County Complex, when the county bought it from Marathon Oil in 2005.

The Bistro has always been envisioned as an extra service for Cody library patrons and not as a money-making business. Wary of competing with private coffee shops and restaurants in Cody, county commissioners have hamstrung the library cafe by prohibiting it from advertising or catering outside the building. Prices are comparable to other restaurants; a Reuben sandwich, for example, goes for $8.50 and a 12 ounce latte for $2.75.

The ultimate goal is for the operation to break even, but since July 2009, county budget documents show the Biblio Bistro has lost roughly $320,000 — bringing in around $425,000 in revenue against $746,000 worth of expenses. Commissioner Loren Grosskopf noted the deficits are actually a little larger, as those figures do not include the benefits of the Bistro’s one full-time employee.

The cafe’s annual losses have long been tracked and discussed by library leaders and commissioners, but with county dollars tight, the Biblio Bistro got some extra scrutiny last month.

To get the budget to balance for the coming fiscal year, the five-member Park County Library Board opted to set aside no money for books, DVDs or other audio-visual materials. Library leaders will still buy those items, but they will use money previously saved up with the state library system, Clymer said.

That budgeting decision prompted Tilden’s question about whether Clymer saw books or the Bistro as more important.

Commissioner Jake Fulkerson also inquired about having no money in the budget for books and other materials.

“But what about next year?” Fulkerson asked. “I mean, this isn’t sustainable.”

Clymer said that, when the saved up money runs out, the library will seek grants and look at other avenues of funding — including the Park County Library Foundation.

“We have other sources. They’re not huge, but they’re there, and so I think it’s really kind of your call whether or not you wish to continue to support the Bistro,” she told the commission. “It’s in your hands.”

Commissioners disagreed, repeatedly saying they were only making suggestions and were not ordering the library board, whose members they appoint and oversee, to make any changes to the cafe’s operations.

“I’ll support your decision now, but you talk about, ‘Well, we’ve cut all the books that are so important to the library system.’ And I’m saying there’s $50,000 that, if you want books, there it is,” Tilden told Clymer. “The choice is up to you.”
 
The Cody library’s Biblio Bistro serves as a gathering place for many people, including these knitters, shown enjoying time at the Bistro in this October 2014 file photo. Photo courtesy Park County Library System
While it’s abnormal to have no money budgeted for books, library leaders have been putting more money toward the Bistro than books for some time, budget documents show: Over the past few years, library leaders have spent between $30,000 and $39,000 on new books for the Cody library and between $49,000 and $55,000 subsidizing the Bistro.

There also is an apparent misconception among county officials that the cafe’s bottom line has been improving.

“It’s better than it used to be,” French said at last month’s meeting, echoing comments that have been made in past years. “We need to keep cutting that deficit.”

“Yep, and we work on it every year,” responded Clymer. She added later that, “I believe we’re getting there, bit by bit.”

However, county budget documents show that, while the library has reduced the amount of money spent on Bistro salaries since it opened, the bottom line has actually gotten worse.

In fact, in the last fiscal year — from July 2015 to June 2016 — the Bistro posted its worst year on record: The Bistro incurred $103,621 worth of expenses and lost nearly $55,200 of that, meaning customers’ purchases covered less than half — 46.7 percent — of the Bistro’s expenses.

The bottom line appears to have improved this fiscal year, though, based on the first 11 months, the Biblio Bistro was on a pace to lose roughly $50,000. That would put it roughly in-line with the past five years.

County budget documents show the Bistro’s best years were actually its first three, when annual losses ranged between $10,000 and $31,000.

  “They’re going to have to get better or there’s going to be drastic changes or shut it down — one or the other,” said Park County Commissioner Tim French.
In an interview after the budget meeting, French said his comments about improved numbers were based on comments from library leaders.

“They’re going to have to get better or there’s going to be drastic changes or shut it down — one or the other,” he said of the figures.

However, French also noted that, viewed another way, the library system and county government as a whole are also money-losing operations — providing services that are not offset by revenue.

“The feedback I get, the public really likes it [the Biblio Bistro], so they’re willing to support it with their property taxes and their sales taxes; they’re willing to support that loss,” French said. “You know, it’s all in how you’re looking at it.”

At the June 20 meeting, commissioner Grosskopf wondered if a partnership with Northwest College to offer culinary classes in the Bistro’s kitchen could be revived, perhaps bringing in some revenue to narrow the deficit. Several years ago, commissioners questioned whether the Biblio Bistro could be privatized, but Clymer said many library cafes leased out to private operators have failed within months.

Park County Library Board Member Greg Bevenger suggested the county consider providing extra funding for the Bistro, so the losses don’t have to be covered by the library system’s budget alone.

“That facility serves more than just something at the library. I mean, there’s a lot of people that go up there just to have a quiet place to talk business or other kinds of things,” Bevenger said.

He said library leaders are in a bit of a quandary: not wanting to compete with local businesses while also trying to support the Bistro. Bevenger also noted the negative consequences of closing the cafe, including laying off the staffers — composed of a full-time manager and four part-time/on-call positions.

Grosskopf suggested there was an in-between option, where the Bistro could perhaps stop selling fully prepared meals and offer simpler and less labor-intensive fare like crackers, cookies and baked goods.

“Definitely, I like the Bistro, no doubt about it, but there are other options,” Grosskopf said.
“I don’t think it would be the same, though,” Bevenger replied later.

The Park County Library System’s overall proposed budget is $1.66 million. The county’s overall budget, which will likely be revised until it’s finalized this month, is currently estimated at $23.39 million.

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