Having helped to create a funding crisis for Erie County's library system last year, County Executive Chris Collins is now helping to craft a solution that will keep the system afloat until it can implement a voter-approved taxing district. It's a creative plan that calls on new sources of support for the library and acknowledges some realities about county expenses. All in all, it's a strong plan that deserves support from the Legislature and the public.
The crisis came about when Collins, despite a county surplus, cut library funding by about $4 million in this year's budget. Under pressure, he restored $3 million for this year only. Still, he seemed not to perceive the public's devotion to the system, unwieldy though it may be with its 36 branches. Indeed, in unveiling the new funding proposal, he acknowledged that he doesn't use the library. The good news is that he overcame that indifference and, together with library supporters, came up with a plan for the future.
The plan, supported by the library's board, is built on four coordinated moves that will fund the library until it can support itself through a special taxing district two or three years from now. They are:
*Collins will bolster county support by an additional $2 million a year for three years by dipping into the county's rainy day fund. The Legislature would need to support this spending.
*The county will take over the costs of maintenance and utilities of the Central Library, relieving the system of $1.3 million in costs.
*Cities, towns and villages will be asked to similarly maintain branches within their municipalities. That is estimated to save the system $1.75 million a year.
*The library system would cut spending on new materials by $900,000 a year for three years, still leaving $2.5 million for the purpose.
With that, the Buffalo & Erie County Public Library System should be able to weather the next few years while it organizes and launches a taxing district, in which voters would have a direct say on library funding and the taxes they would pay to support the system.
Not everyone likes the idea of a taxing district. After all, if the library system is critical infrastructure, why not fund it that way, out of general property taxes? What is more, New York State has more than enough taxing entities already. Why add another?
They are fair questions, but there are persuasive answers, as well. New York is close to approving a property tax cap that would limit annual tax increases to perhaps 2 percent. But county Medicaid costs -- which account for almost the entire tax levy -- are capped at 3 percent, so the county starts at a disadvantage.
Also, Collins has flatly declared he won't raise property taxes, so for the library to survive under his leadership, an alternative funding mechanism is needed. Critically, Collins has pledged to reduce county taxes by the amount raised by the library tax. Theoretically, at least, it's a wash.
The change may be a small challenge for some municipalities, as they face the costs of maintenance and utilities at their libraries, but it's fair to ask them to support libraries within their borders. Indeed, everyone who supports the library should get behind this plan and help the system become self-sufficient and stable.