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The Buffalo & Erie County Library System gave the public what it wanted -- retention of all 52 branches, regardless of cost, level of use or condition of facility. Now the system is starting to buckle under that weight. The first crack in the foundation is visible -- a cutback in hours and increased overdue fines unless the county comes through with more money.

The cutbacks and fine increases are meant to cover a $700,000 budget shortfall. It's a responsible action in the face of a projected deficit, but it's also as predictable as politicians making promises.

A couple of years ago, the system underwent an extensive outreach program to the public over a reorganization plan. The outcry to keep neighborhood libraries was loud. So here we are -- running a system that ranks 27th nationally in the number of people served and ninth in the number of branches, according to library officials.

People were unimpressed that the downstate firm hired to do a study of the library system, Aaron Cohen & Associates, suggested the system consolidate libraries. Now it's time to pay the price: A dozen libraries throughout the county will have hours cut back an average of four hours a week, and four libraries -- Crane, Dudley, Hamburg and Kenmore -- will have Sunday hours eliminated. And you can be sure that price will go up as older branches face ever-increasing maintenance costs.

County Executive Joel Giambra is proposing a $27.1 million library budget for next year that includes only $97,500 in additional county-appropriated funding. That's short of the $797,500 needed to cover costs. The fine increase is expected to give the library a $400,000 boost in revenue. To be fair, the library hasn't increased fines since 1983, and the new schedule is in line with what other libraries are charging.

Cutbacks in hours and increased fines are the price of doing business when the community decides every library needs to be up and running. The community finds value in library services, especially technology. You can renew and request books online. In October, 38 percent of the requests were placed from home, office or school.

But that technology costs money, as does maintaining a system of library branches that exceeds what most other areas our size have. Sooner or later, the money runs out. Those who demanded that the county maintain a system impractically large have a right to be concerned about the cutbacks in hours. They have less of a right to complain about it.

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