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Library cuts take human toll As system eliminates a third of its work force, recalculation of seniority worsens situation of some longtime employees

Nancy Mueller, a librarian for two decades, will lose her job as manager of the Kenmore Library two days before Christmas.

"I've been running a branch for 20 years," said Mueller, 46, of Cheektowaga. "I think, 'How can this happen?' "

Library closings have grabbed all of the attention.

But, the real cost-cutting in the Buffalo & Erie County Public Library system has been among staff, who are going through a gut-wrenching and controversial series of downgrades and layoffs -- which could be challenged in court.

By year's end, the county library system will have let go about 280 librarians, clerks and maintenance employees -- about one-third of its work force.

Some are veterans like Mueller; others are the system's future -- young librarians like Matthew Best, who has worked at the Central Library since 2003. He was laid off Dec. 2.

"I thought I was going to retire at the Buffalo & Erie County Public Library," said Best, 30, of Amherst. "It was a slap in the face to watch my life be put on hold by things beyond my control."

For library patrons, the layoffs mean programs may be cut because there are no people to run them. That familiar face behind the counter may no longer be there. Patrons may have to wait a little longer for assistance.

Library employees keeping their jobs also are going through a transition.

"Those that are left behind will have to get used to the work," Best said. "There's going to be fewer people doing more work."

When library officials needed to compensate for a multimillion-dollar shortfall in county support next year, closing libraries wasn't going to be enough.

They essentially had two options: forgo buying any new library materials or laying off staff, whose salaries and fringe benefits constitute three-quarters of the system's budget.

"It's the kind of situation I wouldn't wish on anybody," said Michael C. Mahaney, county library director. "But we have to provide people with the materials libraries are expected to provide."

The result: full- and part-time staff was cut this year to 579 from 859. Of the roughly $7 million chopped from the library system's budget this year and last year, more than $5.2 million has come out of payroll.

As employees braced for these layoffs, they were blind-sided by how cuts would be implemented.

Erie County civil service calculated seniority differently than in the past, explained Thomas Morrissey, president of the Librarian's Association of the Buffalo & Erie County Public Library.

Layoffs are determined by local library, and seniority is based upon years of service in the locality where an employee is currently working.

Mueller, for example, started as a librarian in 1984, spent 18 years in Cheektowaga, then took a promotion last year to Kenmore's branch manager. But under the new civil service ruling, she receives credit only for her time as a librarian in the Town of Tonawanda.

Now, Mueller is being laid off, even though she has worked in the system longer than some others keeping their jobs elsewhere around the county.

>Union wrestles with filing suit

The librarians' union is considering filing a lawsuit over the civil service ruling, Morrissey said.

Unfortunately, it wouldn't reduce the number of layoffs, only change the faces.

"It has been the most difficult process I think I've ever had to deal with in my professional career," said Mary Jean Jakubowski, assistant deputy director of human resources. "It's absolutely heart-breaking."

As a result of some retirements, bumping employees to part-time, downgrading job titles and creating a new, less-costly library assistant position, not as many workers will be laid off as originally thought, Mahaney and Jakubowski said.

Library administrators are doing the best they can with the money they have, but laying off some full-timers before part-timers isn't going over well with union members, said Nancy Moran, president of the library section of the Civil Service Employees Association, which represents clerical staff.

Moran also is troubled that some of the top administrators received a bump in pay this year, while some employees are being downgraded, cut to part-time and taking pay cuts.

In July, pay went up $1,884 to $96,087 for Ruth A. Collins, chief operating officer; $1,873 to $95,515 for Kenneth H. Stone, chief financial officer; and $4,819 to $71,186 for Jakubowski. Mahaney's salary has remained at $102,000.

Administrators make no excuses for the salaries, saying the union received the same increases.

"They deserve it, rightfully so," Moran said. "But not at this time."

>Librarian feels exploited

Neither Best nor Mueller points fingers, but they're bitter about the county's budget mess.

Best said he will start looking for library positions at local schools, colleges and law firms. He will give it a year or two, before moving out of Western New York.

Mueller, meanwhile, applied for one of the new assistant librarian positions. She got it.

So after being laid off as manager, she will return to the Kenmore Library the following week to work in a lower-level position, at half her former pay, for a colleague she now supervises.

She probably will end up doing much of the same work.

"I'm glad to be getting this other job, but I just feel taken advantage of," Mueller said. "What else can I do? I need benefits. I need health insurance."

e-mail: jrey@buffnews.com

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