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Libraries are expected to get budget protection

Erie County's library system may finally get what it always wanted -- permanent legal protection from the whims and politics of the county's budget woes.

County lawmakers, for the first time, seem poised to make permanent a current law that protects the library system from sudden midyear budget reductions.

The law, known as the Library Protection Act, also requires that any county tax revenue going to the libraries appear as a separate item on residents' tax bills.

"There were years when the library's budget was -- I wouldn't say raided -- but was compromised," said Michael C. Mahaney, director of the Buffalo & Erie County Public Library. "This is a good time to acknowledge that this law has worked for 14 years and should be made permanent."

The law, which until now was temporary, was first adopted in 1992 and has been extended by the County Legislature several times over the years.

If lawmakers approve this new measure -- supporters say they have at least 10 votes -- it would make the law permanent. A vote is expected Thursday, after a public hearing on the issue at 5 p.m. today in the Legislature's Chambers, fourth floor of County Hall, 92 Franklin St.

The new law, if approved, would take effect Jan. 1.

Perhaps the best example of how the library benefits from the law came in 2005 after the Legislature approved the library budget but then failed to pass an increase in the sales tax.

The law prevented the county from going back and reducing the library budget until a year later.

"This gives the library system a sense of security," said Legislator Michele M. Iannello, D-Kenmore, sponsor of the permanent law. "It's also an important step in the relationship between the libraries and the county."

In general, the law has been renewed for two-year periods. The exception was in 1999, when legislators, concerned about a consolidation plan that would reduce the number of libraries in the system, approved the act for only one year as a way to keep control over the system.

Library officials have spent years pushing for a permanent law, but, until now, lawmakers were always opposed to the notion.

The law has its roots in the early 1990s, when the library system went to court to complain that the county was diverting funds from the system.

In October 1992, after a three-year court battle, the State Court of Appeals backed the library's position that the diversion was illegal. The Legislature then followed up by passing the Library Protection Act.

e-mail: pfairbanks@buffnews.com

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