Perhaps Erie County's financial meltdown will finally convince the loyal patrons of the Buffalo & Erie County Public Library system that this county can no longer afford business as usual. If there is a silver lining to the county's dark fiscal cloud, perhaps it will be that more county residents will come to the reluctant realization that it's time to pare down the system's 52-branch operation.
In the past, the mere mention of consolidation brought people out in droves to protest the idea of shuttering even a storefront "library." To his credit, Michael Mahaney, director of the library system, remains a strong supporter of changing the library structure.
County Executive Joel Giambra offered to build a modern, new library in any community that closed two branches. Still, there were few takers. The county executive is still trying to finish off the deal to consolidate and build a new library in South Buffalo. And there are communities in the Northtowns that will be talking with the county executive shortly about his proposal.
Despite the county's budget problems, Giambra said that money remaining from the tobacco settlement still is available to build one new state-of-the-art library to replace two older ones. Mahaney has his doubts about those resources. He wants to wait a couple of months until the state comptroller's report on the county budget is released.
Fair enough. But even if that money is not available, the stubborn insistence on maintaining all 52 branches is resulting in a weaker overall system. The system has added fewer books than last year and has cut back on hours.
The library system dodged a bullet, sort of, when the Erie County Legislature approved its budget in December, acting on the assumption that an increase in sales tax would be approved. That meant only a $4.2 million budget cut and 100 people laid off. The system will not get off so easily next time, especially now that County Comptroller Nancy Naples has estimated that the county is facing a 2005 deficit of more than $113 million. Even before that, Giambra told the library's board of trustees not to expect the same level of funding for the libraries next year.
This is no time to fund a system that is clearly too large for the community to handle. As reported earlier in The News, statistics from the American Library Association show that Erie County has one of the biggest, most sprawling systems in the country. The library system in Detroit/Wayne County has 37 branches, Atlanta/Fulton County has 33 and Pittsburgh/Allegheny County has 44 branches. In other upstate cities, Rochester/ Monroe County has 35 libraries and Syracuse/Onondaga County has 32.
A 52-branch library system in Erie County makes little sense in today's financial climate. It's time to pare down.