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Board has no choice but to close libraries

The Buffalo and Erie County Public Library neither created nor contributed to the county's fiscal crisis. On the contrary, the library, its staff and its many patrons are innocent bystanders. Never has the library run a deficit, overestimated its revenue or outspent its income. Arguably, the library returns more per tax dollar received than any other arm of county government, and continues to accomplish more with less year after year.

Ironically, the library predicted this crisis seven years ago and tried to convince elected leaders and residents that a 52-library system is no longer viable as our population and tax base decline. A system of fewer, better libraries was the hope -- the plan. That plan was realistic and rational, but there were precious few who would entertain such a notion then. Now there will be fewer libraries, but they will consist of the best of what we had, not the best we might have created.

Nevertheless, there is nothing to gain from hindsight and second guessing. With at least $7 million less to operate in 2006 than the library had in 2004, our decision is how to do the most with what we have. Rather than whine and point fingers, the library has shouldered this burden and accepted this challenge.

We know there's no extra money. Given that fact, we've prepared a plan. It is far from perfect, and it inflicts more pain than our public and our conscientious staff deserve, but our choices are few.

We must close libraries. We must strip our operation to the bone. We must send a generation of dedicated, talented staff to far destinations. No one wants this. But what are the alternatives? No matter how anyone approaches it, $21.7 million is not enough to deliver even a facsimile of the service the library delivers today -- far below the record-breaking service we delivered only last year. Every library that survives this unfortunate process must do much more with far less next year.

We must remind the community that the library board of trustees has no authority to close even one library outside of Buffalo. The board provides operating revenue to those city, town, village and free association libraries in an annual contractual agreement. The board might suggest the optimal way to allocate those financial resources, but it remains the decision of local officials as to how they operate their libraries with the dollars they receive, subject to system policies and the specific terms of the agreement.

When all is said and done, we cannot ignore the bottom line: $21.7 million. That amount is not enough -- even with reduced hours and new staffing strategies -- to sustain more than two-thirds of today's library system. A 2006 budget of $21.7 million cannot restore or maintain every library in Erie County, but with economies and strategies, the number of potential closings has been confined to 16. Many more might have closed.

There is no miracle cure for Erie County's fiscal ailments. Anyone expecting a quick fix is doomed to disappointment. With foresight, the library has prepared for the inevitable. We don't relish what we must do, but we are prepared to do it.

Rebecca L. Pordum is chairwoman of the Buffalo and Erie County Public Library Board.

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