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The Buffalo & Erie County Public Library is a public trust. For nearly 170 years our community has invested in its libraries, and those libraries have returned that investment many times over in resources, services and improved quality of life. Today, that long-term, bountiful investment is in jeopardy.

For the child beginning to discover the wonder of reading, the teen striving to make meaningful life choices, the unemployed adult struggling to re-enter the work force, the senior desperate to understand computers so she can share e-mail with out-of-town grandchildren, there is no substitute for the public library.

There may be dark days ahead for that child, that teen, that unemployed adult, that senior -- and for many thousands of Erie County residents.

On Sept. 28, the library submitted a 2005 budget request to Erie County's budget office. That request was bare bones. It continued to reduce staffing and control costs. But it sustained public service at 2004 levels.

The public library is not a luxury. It is a necessity. Since the recession of 2001, circulation of library materials across the county has increased 21 percent. Over the same period, library computer use has soared 48 percent. This year, the library expects to circulate more than 9 million items, serve more than 5 million visitors and provide more than 450,000 registered computer use sessions.

What other publicly supported institution can claim such a record of public service and success?

Operation of the library is funded primarily through a portion of the county's real property tax. Under a proposal from the County Budget Office on Oct. 18, that support would plummet from $24.2 million in 2004 to $6.2 million in 2005 -- a loss of $18 million. And $2.8 million in state aid would be at risk as well, making the cut nearly $22 million -- 75 percent of the library's operating budget.

The library system as we know it would collapse. After Jan. 1, 2005, hundreds of thousands of citizens who depend on the library would encounter locked doors, conceivably at more than 50 locations. Millions of dollars of public property would be out of reach -- essentially lost.

Cutting funds and closing libraries is shortsighted and counterproductive. If we want people to remain in Erie County, return here and invest here, we must sustain and enhance our public libraries. We can't afford not to make that investment in our present and in the next generation's future. Legislators must not reduce library support. It is a small price to pay for a return that is too great to measure.

Recently, I met with the county executive and deputy county executive to convey my concerns and reinforce the Library Board's commitment to preserving our library system. I plan to convey this same message to many other public officials in the weeks ahead.

Please urge your county and state elected officials to work together to find meaningful, lasting solutions to the challenges that face our region.

Rebecca Pordum is chairwoman of the Buffalo & Erie County Public Library Board of Trustees.

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