Libraries are not optional.
That message was stated -- again and again -- Thursday, when 100 concerned Erie County residents crowded into a board meeting in Central Library to express their displeasure at a looming budget cut that could close up to 50 local libraries.
Mothers and fathers made speeches. PTA members did, too. Home-schooling families spoke, as did artists and senior citizens and young professionals.
"Loss of libraries will only cause this area to further decline," said Susan Stievater of Amherst. "It is a major quality-of-life issue."
Janine Artis of Wakefield Avenue, who home-schools her children, said the loss of libraries would devastate her family. "We cannot educate our children without the public libraries," she said. "It is so vital I cannot describe it."
Facing the 52-branch library system is a directive from Erie County Executive Joel A. Giambra to cut $18 million out of the library budget for next year.
The cut would decimate the operating budget and force the closing of almost all branch libraries, library officials said.
Currently, the library receives $30 million a year from Erie County -- 90 percent of its operating revenue. And $3 million comes from the state.
Getzville resident Vivian Stromberg said she would prefer her tax dollars to go to libraries.
"I'm a taxpayer -- spend some of my money on something I use, instead of giving it all away to everybody else," she said. "I don't know what I would do if I can't take my daughter to the library."
Rebecca Pordum, chairwoman of the Library Board, encouraged residents to express their "outrage" to elected leaders on the county and state levels.
"They must not reduce our library support," said Pordum. "The library as we know it would collapse."
Pordum said the total cut to library funding after Jan. 1 could amount to $22 million -- a hit totaling 75 percent -- since state funding for libraries depends on local funding.
A spokesman for the Giambra administration said late Thursday that residents should direct their frustration solely toward the state.
"Joel Giambra does not want to close libraries. People have a right to be angry," said Jeffrey W. Hammond. "But they should be angry with the State Legislature. The State Legislature should take responsibility for their Medicaid program, which is bankrupting counties across New York State."
The county executive has proposed a number of cost-cutting actions to cope with a $130 million budget deficit, much of which he attributes to rising costs of the state-mandated Medicaid program. Giambra wants the state to allow the county to add a penny to the sales tax, bringing it to 9.25 percent, saying that without it, property taxes will have to be increased.