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Taxing district proposed for libraries ; County legislators hear plan for stability

A special taxing district for the Buffalo & Erie County Public Library would bring the embattled system financial stability and enable it to plan in the long term, Erie County lawmakers were told Thursday.

With a public library district, residents would vote on budgets and elect the board of trustees. If voted down, the next budget would default to the current spending plan, eliminating the drastic budgetary swings the system has endured at the hands of lawmakers over the past decade.

Library Director Bridget Quinn-Carey told the Community Enrichment Committee during the informational session in the Central Library that a fundamental change is needed -- and soon. The public library system is facing more severe cuts, even as the library experiences "explosive growth."

"We do not have a way to maintain even this reduced level of service going forward," Quinn-Carey said.

The library system has a $4 million funding gap this year, with revenue projected to shrink next year and beyond.

Tuesday, 47 librarians are to receive their pink slips, eliminating the equivalent of 36 1/2 full-time positions.

Hours and services throughout the system have been cut, and the Teen Room used by inner-city youth is no more.

Quinn-Carey noted that the library system also anticipates further cuts from the state budget this year -- the sixth such setback in the past three years, she said.

Quinn-Carey added that budgets in taxing districts -- approved 90 percent of the time -- typically provide a higher per-capita level of funding than those in nontaxing districts.

The small number of public library districts statewide include Chemung County.

A public library district for Erie County would be the state's largest, she added.

State lawmakers view the practice favorably, Quinn-Carey said, seeing it as a way to streamline government. A public library district would mean consolidating the 23 boards established in 1953 to run the system's 37 libraries.

"I think this is a wonderful example of regionalism," trustee John Schmidt Jr. suggested.

Last month, County Executive Chris Collins said he would support a special taxing district to finance the library system.

Quinn-Carey said a committee of trustees had been exploring the issue for a year, and the University at Buffalo's Regional Institute was expected to report by May on the advantages and disadvantages.

She suggested the library boards and the state Board of Regents could vote this year, and legislation could be introduced early next year in the State Legislature, with a vote later that year. Establishing a public library district also would require a local referendum.

That would allow direct taxpayer funding to begin in 2013, Quinn-Carey said.

Trustee Elaine M. Panty said a funding solution is more urgent than ever.

"This seems to be the only alternative we have to save our library system," Panty said.

Later, she added, "This is our last, best hope, the last lifeline we've got."

e-mail: msommer@buffnews.com

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