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County Executive Joel A. Giambra's warning that libraries could be next to face the budget ax left Buffalo officials looking for promises Monday that none of the city branches would shut down.

They still are looking.

"I'm not optimistic," said Michael C. Mahaney, director of the Buffalo & Erie County Public Library. "I believe the county is in worse fiscal shape than even it believes."

Common Council members, eager to hear any kind of assurance over the future of city libraries, quizzed Mahaney about the likely impact of the county's fiscal crisis.

They left the meeting with more questions than answers.

"My fear is that next year I'm going to be looking at a (library) closing in my district," Lovejoy Council Member Richard A. Fontana said. "I don't want to see that."

Last month, Giambra warned library officials of the prospect of deep funding cuts next year. The system's 52 branches -- 15 in the city, 37 in other parts of the county -- stayed open this year despite 100 layoffs and a $4.2 million cut in county aid.

But next year, even deeper cuts could result in library closings.

In his March 15 letter to Mahaney, Giambra suggested reducing the number of branch libraries across the county. He echoed that idea Monday and said the prospect of library closings could provide an incentive for people to support the consolidation of branches.

"Crisis breeds opportunity," Giambra said. "We can no longer afford to have our grandfathers' library system."

Mahaney left open the possibility that some libraries may have to close next year but stopped short of speculating on which ones. He said cuts in funding would be spread among city and suburban branches.

The library director also suggested the county's fiscal woes may hamper county efforts to establish a single, consolidated library in South Buffalo -- a test case for closing branches.

"That proposal may no longer be on the table," Mahaney told lawmakers. "I don't believe the county executive has the resources."

In the past, Giambra has offered at least $2.5 million to any community willing to replace two or more aging branch libraries with one new facility.

In South Buffalo, the plan called for closing the Dudley and Cazenovia branches and building a 12,000- to 14,000-square-foot library equipped with the latest technology.

"We are still pursuing the South Buffalo proposal," Giambra said Monday. "We are still prepared to put money on the table."

From Day One, an organized group of residents had opposed that plan as a bad deal for South Buffalo. The residents want both branches kept open.

While awaiting next year's budget, the library system is seeking to cut costs and find new sources of funding, most recently a new user fee on people who live outside Erie County.

"We're trying to find ways to streamline," Mahaney said. "We're also trying to find ways to raise revenue."


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