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The city's public library system has been supported financially the same way since it began, on Feb. 25, 1895.

That doesn't concern Mark Roundtree, a third-grader at Hyde Park Elementary School.

On a recent afternoon, he was more interested in doing his math homework in the children's library at the main branch on Main Street. On other afternoons, he plays educational games on the children's computers, or reads books.

Mark can't envision his city without public libraries, but it could happen someday. In June, city residents will be asked to approve a school district library system that would take the control of library funding away from City Hall and give it directly to taxpayers.

A similar request failed with voters in 2001.

This time, the future of two public libraries in Niagara Falls could be at stake.

A change would create a funding stream that is more reliable than the financial roller coaster that library officials have ridden in recent years. The City Council, with several pressing budget issues to prioritize, has struggled to make a firm commitment to libraries, and slashed its support this year.

"I had $4.5 million in unpaid bills when I took office," Mayor Vince Anello said at a recent public meeting about the city libraries. "The truth is, we're broke and I'm charged with providing public health and public safety."

Currently, the Council and mayor decide what amount of tax dollars from the city's operating budget will be set aside for the library. Depending on the economic pressures of that year, they fund it as they see fit.

Anello, a first-term mayor, said when he was putting together the city's proposed 2005 operating budget that he had a choice: cut from snowplowing and police or underfund the library.

He chose the library.

Anello proposed a $1 million cut from the library's nearly $2 million budget.

The move upset many residents, and the City Council has come under public attack for passing that budget, which, if left unchanged, would force the library to shut its doors July 1.

When asked why the Council never addressed the lack of funding for the library during budget deliberations last fall, Chairman Charles Walker said, "I think the Council took for granted that the administration would come back later with a way to fund it."

"We felt it wasn't going to come to this point," Walker said. "The issue is how do we get out of this situation?"

Seeking a solution

The best solution, city and library leaders agree, would be a school district library system.

"Each year it's a battle because the library budget is cut and it's not across the board (for city departments)," said Niagara Falls Library Director Betty Babanoury.

Babanoury said forming a school district library is the only way to achieve reliable funding. In recent years, she said, she's had to cut staff and reduce full-time professional librarians to part-time status in order to keep libraries downtown and in LaSalle running.

A school district library is so named, not because it has anything to do with public schools, but because it would be paid for by taxes on residents who own property within the boundaries of the Niagara Falls School District. Those boundaries are the same as that of the city.

Under that funding structure, the budget is submitted by library leaders to taxpayers, not politicians, to decide if they can afford a budget change that would result in a tax hike.

"It's the most democratic way to run a library," Babanoury said.

If a referendum to form a school district library passes, taxpayers would be asked to support the library's $1.8 million budget and elect individuals to serve on the Library board of trustees.

Currently, trustees are appointed by the mayor and approved by the City Council.

Under the property tax rate, the library assessment would be $63 a year for a resident who owns a home worth $50,000, and $182 for a $100,000 commercial building.

"It would be fine to put in a school district library, but you have to lower the (city) budget by the same amount," said Darla Quintern, a homemaker and mother of two who visits the library every Monday with her boys.

The problem: Anello said he can't promise that. He said he may need the money once used to fund the library to fill a city budget deficit.

Anello said he favors the school district library because it would put the library budget into the hands of taxpayers, and because of the city has fast approached its property tax limit, set by the state constitution.

"If we give it a temporary fix this year we'll have the exact same problem next year," the mayor said.

Councilwoman Candra Thomason said if voters pass this year's referendum, she would push to eliminate the same amount of the library tax from the city's 2006 operating budget.

A growing trend

School and special district libraries are not uncommon in the area and are a growing trend nationally because they present a stable funding source.

North Tonawanda Public Library was founded more than 100 years ago as a school district library and has seen about a 2.52 percent increase in its budget each year. That translates into a $2 hike in property taxes for residents each year, although the average cost for the library tax for a homeowner in that city is $80 per year.

North Tonawanda Library Director Margaret A. Waite said she gets nervous each year on the day the public votes on the library budget, but she's happy she doesn't have to rely on Common Council members to approve it. Her budget passed Wednesday night by a vote of 339-66.

Independent library districts have popped up in about 35 states in the past decade, said Jamie LaRue, director for the Douglas County Library System in Colorado.

"There was a time when both public and county libraries were a high level (service), then they dropped down in priority even though in bad times use tends to go up," LaRue said.

He said when libraries get caught in a political fray they are not seen as a necessary service and yet, to most residents, it is the most popular service a municipality can offer.

The county-funded system in Douglas held a successful referendum in 1990 in which voters turned out to support funding their own libraries, he said.

Independent library districts are their own taxing entities. In New York, this requires a special action by the State Legislature, as well as local voter approval.

A school district library works similarly, but state legislative approval is not part of the process.

Two of the 12 libraries in Niagara County were founded as school district libraries -- Lockport is the other one -- but most are still funded by municipal budgets.

Lewiston Public Library recently tried to become a special district library, but that move was rejected by voters who did not want to pay extra taxes. Instead, the library has cut hours and the amount of new books and materials it purchases, to stay within the budget the Lewiston Town Board has set.

Many of the libraries in the county are small neighborhood libraries in the NIOGA system, an association that includes 21 libraries in Niagara, Orleans and Genesee counties.

Niagara Falls is the central library of that system, but because of its financial troubles Mary Brink, executive director of the NIOGA system, said she has been instructed by state officials to have a back-up central library chosen in case the worst occurs in the Cataract City.

Each library in the system shares books, but Niagara Falls has the largest adult nonfiction collection, Brink said.

"Public libraries are not mandated, so why not give people the right to decide what they want," Brink said. "If you value a library, you are more likely to come out and support it, but if you can't vote, then it's someone like the Council or Town Board that will make that decision for you."

Alternate funding

The library referendum is tentatively set for June 21, and Council members have repeatedly promised residents that even if it fails they will not allow the city's libraries to close.

In case voters decide they cannot bear an added tax this year, the City Council has passed a resolution, sponsored by Thomason, requesting Anello to appropriate budget amendments to provide additional funding for the library. It would come either from the New York Power Authority relicensing settlement on the Niagara Power Project, or the local share of Seneca Niagara Casino revenue.

The authority, though, is not obligated to make payments to any municipality until 2007, said Mark Zito, director of the Niagara Power Coalition.

And Anello insists he will only use casino revenue for economic development or job creation measures designed to increase the tax base.

He said if voters reject the referendum, he'll be forced to open up the budget and cut jobs.

"I want the public to give me guidance on what services they want cut," he said.

Council members all want casino money to be freed up to fund the library for the rest of the year. They maintain state law regarding those funds is vague enough to allow this.

"Hopefully we can change the governor's mind about the casino money, but if all that fails and we have to look for this million dollars (elsewhere), there are going to be cuts," said Councilman Lewis "Babe" Rotella. "We've got to keep it open."

Rotella said that, in the future, he'll be asking the library to downsize and move into a smaller building.

The Earl W. Brydges library building is about 90,000 square feet, while the LaSalle Branch is about 18,000 square feet.

Nine-year-old Mark Roundtree -- one of a throng of elementary and middle school pupils who use the libraries -- may not know the mechanics behind their funding, but already knows about his city's economic plight.

His mother, Tanaya Hill, "checks out cities because she wants to move," he said. "I want to stay here because I've got a lot of friends."

Darla Quintern, who is running after her 4- and 2-year-old sons on their library day, said she moved back to Niagara Falls after living out of state because the school system in New York is so much better.

Although there was no state income tax in Tennessee, where she lived for a few years, she said in Niagara Falls, "at least the police come by and patrol, and there's a fire department."

"We say we're overtaxed," she said, "but you get what you pay for."