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A stronger library will be able to enhance the region

There's been a lot of talk lately about the future of our libraries, and I want to update you on discussions taking place that will stabilize and revitalize the Buffalo & Erie County Public Library System's financial footing. For 175 years, the library has encouraged lifelong learning through free access to information -- a valued and valuable service that has contributed to this community's innovation and prosperity.

As the economy faltered, so did the library's finances. Since 2005, when substantial funding cuts forced the closure of 15 libraries, the library board of trustees has been researching long-term ways to stabilize funding. As a municipal library system, we are primarily funded through a county property tax levy. This funds the operations of 37 libraries throughout Erie County. The library system includes 22 contracting libraries located throughout Erie County, plus the Central Library and eight branches in Buffalo. Currently, 15 people serve on the system board. As dictated by the New York State Education Charter, 10 members are appointed by the Erie County executive and five are by the mayor of Buffalo. Each of the 22 contracting libraries has its own board, totaling 130 members, the majority appointed by the municipalities.

Library trustees and the trustees of the contracting libraries, along with elected officials, have been researching and discussing a possible change in the governance structure in order to stabilize funding. While no final decision has been reached, together we are considering the option of the library system changing from a municipal library to a special legislative district public library. This initiative would consolidate the 22 library boards and the system board into one board of trustees, elected by the public. This voluntary board would propose the library's budget and residents of Erie County would vote on it.

County Executive Chris Collins is working with us to develop a funding stream for the library during the transition process. His plan -- $18.2 million in direct county funding from property taxes and an additional $6 million through other funding streams -- will maintain the current level of operations. When and if the funding district is established, the current property tax levy dedicated to the libraries will be eliminated from the county's budget. There will be no double-taxing.

A stronger, well-funded library will enhance this region's revitalization efforts. Libraries will continue to offer the resources that encourage and support lifelong learning through reading, programming for children, activities for teens, computer training and employment and business assistance for adults and seniors.

As the library system decides on its future, we remain committed to the mission -- connecting our diverse community with library resources that enrich, enlighten and entertain -- as the cornerstone of our work.

Sharon A. Thomas is chairwoman of the Buffalo & Erie County Public Library System board of trustees.

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