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Public libraries across Erie County would be forced to close their doors if a major funding cutback announced Monday by the Giambra administration takes effect, library officials said.

The $18 million cut in county funding would slash the 52-branch library system's 2005 operating budget by more than 50 percent, according to Library Director Michael C. Mahaney.

"Cuts of this magnitude -- it's just devastating," Mahaney said. "That's taking most of our operating money away. Most of the libraries in the county would be forced to close."

The library system was ordered to make the budget cut in a letter from Erie County Budget Director Joseph Passafiume delivered to library system administrators Monday.

Passafiume, in the letter, stated that the cutback was due to two factors: the growing local share cost of Medicaid and the inability of the administration of County Executive Joel A. Giambra to get a 1 percent increase in the county-levied sales tax passed in Albany.

"The county has no choice but to reduce vital services and programs countywide," Passafiume stated.

A cut of $18 million represents more than half of the $30 million in county funding that the Buffalo & Erie County Public Library system receives each year. Of that amount, $25 million serves as an operating budget for the system and $5 million goes toward capital spending on books and materials.

The library also receives just under $3 million a year from the state, or a bit less than 10 percent of its funding.

Mahaney pointed out that the drastic reduction comes at a time when more people than ever are using the library system.

"I hate to liken this to the Great Depression, but during the Great Depression, library use rose to all-time highs," he said. "People had no money, so they used the libraries. Now people are having a hard time financially, and they're using the library like never before."

The library's share of state funding also might be jeopardized if the county's cutback goes through, Mahaney said. "We have to deliver service to qualify for the state aid," he said. "If we're shutting down, we're not going to get the state money for service."

In towns and villages across Erie County, branch libraries rely on the county funding to operate.

According to contractual arrangements with municipalities, the library system directs operating money -- county dollars -- to branch libraries to cover their costs of operation and to pay for everything inside the libraries, from furniture to computers to books.

In return, towns and villages pay to build and maintain their public library buildings.

Mahaney said the letter from the Giambra administration took library officials by surprise, coming after they had submitted a "status quo" budget plan for 2005.

"We do have a modest reserve, but it's a drop in the bucket," he said. "This letter just came to us an hour ago. We have to talk about what we're going to do now."


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