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READING BETWEEN THE LINES
EVEN THOUGH ERIE COUNTY'S 52 LIBRARIES WERE SPARED IN THE RECENT BUDGET CRISIS, THEIR FUTURE REMAINS ON SHAKY GROUND, AND CHANGES -- INCLUDING CLOSINGS -- COULD BE ON THE WAY

Elaine Kilmer reads two, sometimes three, books a week and had just stocked up at the Orchard Park library recently when she paused to consider how she would feel if libraries joined parks and auto bureaus on the county's closed list.

"That would be pretty much criminal," the 75-year-old former teacher replied.

Judging from circulation numbers at the county's libraries, she is far from alone in her opinion. But the more people are told they are not supposed to run in Chestnut Ridge Park or the longer they have to wait in line to renew their driver's licenses, a question keeps coming up:

What's so special about the libraries?

While every facet of Erie County government seems to have been affected by the budget crisis, all 52 libraries remain open, although on a reduced schedule.

"Comparatively speaking, yes, we have gotten off easy," said Michael C. Mahaney, director of the Buffalo & Erie County Public Library.

Perhaps only in the current climate would a $4.2 million budget cut and the layoff of 100 people be called getting off easy, but the library system does enjoy some special protection -- at least for now.

The local share of the library's $26 million budget (which includes $2.8 million in state aid) is funded by property taxes. There is a separate library tax included within the overall county tax. When the Erie County Legislature approved the library budget in December, it acted on the assumption an increase in the sales tax would be approved.

But once the sales tax increase crashed and burned, the county was prevented from going back and reducing the library budget by the terms of the Library Protection Act.

"While we get our funding from the county, we are not a county department," Mahaney explained. "We are more like an independent government."

But the funding could well change for 2006.

"We have legislative protection, but that doesn't guarantee us an amount," he said.

Time for a change?

In the meantime it faces other more immediate problems.

The library's proposed $5 million fund to purchase books and other materials comes from the county's capital budget and the borrowing has yet to take place.

The library has continued to scrape by with minimal purchases by using funds from last year, but there is fear it will be forced to dip into its operating budget to buy materials.

If that happens "we will probably end up closing some libraries this year," Mahaney said.

Mahaney remains a supporter of changing the structure of the library system and pushed to reform it. After several public hearings in 2000 packed with people who opposed closings, the plan was shelved. But in an interview last year, Mahaney said the idea has not gone away.

"Five years ago, the community wasn't ready for this," he said. "But the community can't afford to keep this many doors open."

The intention then was not to simply close buildings without opening new ones, as now might be the case. Savings would come from personnel cuts and utilities, which the library pays even though municipalities own the buildings.

Decisions to close libraries would be made by individual boards of directors, based on the amount of funding they receive and recommendations from the Central Library.

But any closing would likely come only after a battle.

Citizens to Save the Libraries was formed in the mid-1970s to oppose library cuts then, and the campaign continues today.

"It's not just this year; they have been cutting the staff for years," said Beatrice Elye of Williamsville.

But it's been done gradually and not received much attention, she said.

The Amherst libraries, for example, have undergone significant cuts and personnel shuffles to keep them open, she said.

As it is, the combination of few new titles -- 13,000 so far this year compared to 68,000 last year -- and reduced hours means that circulation and revenue from fines for overdue books are both down about 15 percent, Mahaney said.

By the numbers

In the wake of cuts precipitated by the budget crisis, attention has focused on the number of library buildings, more than systems in Detroit, Atlanta and Pittsburgh, not to mention other upstate cities like Rochester and Syracuse.

Despite the large number of buildings, the library remains a lean operation, Mahaney said.

In 1975 it had 576 full-time employees and circulated 4.6 million items. Now it has 336 workers and last year circulation totaled 9.2 million -- the first time it has surpassed the 9 million mark.

"There is a perception that we didn't take any hits, but it's not true," he said.

Pam Lafferty, principal clerk at the Hamburg Library, said patrons "are grateful we're still open" even though the full-time staff has been cut from 12 to nine through attrition.

There have been complaints about the lack of new books, however.

Mary Bobinski, director of the Amherst library, said the libraries had their budget cut earlier in the process than other parts of county government, so they aren't getting as much attention now.

Libraries "are the people's university" and "people showed how important they are to them" during the budget hearings, she said.

Still, said Audubon branch manager Peter Arnold, the four Amherst branches had their personnel cut 20-25 percent and are "operating on the fumes" of last year's materials budget.

Alan Hrusa of Hamburg said he orders videos and CDs online and then picks them up about twice a week, so he appreciates the libraries.

Still, he said, the county doesn't need 52 of them.

"They could close the libraries one or two days a week and open an auto bureau," he said.

e-mail: ternst@buffnews.com