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July 2011 Column - Keeping Our Libraries Viable


OFFICE HIGHLIGHTS

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The snow has finally melted and our thoughts are turning to the annual ritual of spring cleaning.  In like fashion, our local governments are also preparing to clean up the mess left by the most brutal winter in recent memory.

oneilj - Posted on 13 July 2011

Most people in Erie County agree that the manner in which we manage and fund our libraries needs to change.  The problem has been in attaining agreement on the form of that change.  Recently, the county executive and the library system’s board of trustees advanced a proposal for seeking a more stable source of funding for the county’s 37 public libraries.

 

Although their solution has a number of components, the goal is to establish a county-wide library district.  This new district would require the abolition of the existing city and town library boards in Erie County.  In their place would be a single county elected board with responsibility for all of the county’s public libraries.  It would also have separate taxing authority.  Special state legislation would be required to establish such a district and county voters would have to approve its creation in a referendum which would also establish an initial funding level for the district.  This funding level would remain constant unless the library board voted for it to increase.  The increase would then be subject to a public referendum, similar to school budgets.

 

Since obtaining the state legislation and voter approval will take time, the county executive and the library system’s current board have agreed on a plan to fund the libraries in the interim.  This would involve the county contributing $20 million to the library system’s operating budget for the next three years.  In addition, the county would pick up maintenance costs for the central library in downtown Buffalo at a cost of $1.3 million per year.  The cities and towns in which they are located would be expected to pick up the maintenance costs for the branch libraries.  The maintenance costs for these libraries currently totals over $1.75 million, although the county executive believes maintenance tasks can be performed less expensively by city and town employees.

 

The proposal is both bold and controversial.  Many questions must be answered.  Is it fair to ask the cities and towns to pick up the maintenance costs for the libraries, especially when they are subject to the new property tax cap?  Will the state legislature approve the establishment of a library district?  If they do, will the public referendum be held at a November general election or will there be a special election?  Do we even want another level of government with the ability to levy property taxes?  These are all good questions.  About the only thing that is certain is that we cannot continue on the present course.  We must do something to keep the libraries viable at a cost the taxpayers can afford. 

 

If you have thoughts regarding this important issue, I would like to hear from you.  I can be contacted by phone at 858-8672 or via email at kevin.hardwick@erie.gov.

(Printed July 13, 2011 in the Ken-Ton Bee Newspaper)