A new plan has emerged to pay for Erie County's library system until its board of trustees can ask voters to spin off the libraries from county funding.
County Executive Chris Collins wants the county to absorb the $2 million annual cost of building maintenance at the Central Library and eight branches in Buffalo for the next three years.
He also plans to dip into the county's surplus next year and beyond to restore the county's annual contribution to the Buffalo & Erie County Public Library to a total of $22.2 million in cash and services.
The proposal -- which Collins will include in his 2012 budget plan when he sends it to the Legislature later this week -- is in sharp contrast to his thinking a year ago, when he proposed a $4 million cut to the library subsidy.
Collins later agreed to restore $3 million of that funding and now says his understanding of the library's financial picture evolved as he sat down with library leaders and learned the constraints under which they are working.
"We peeled it back and we peeled it back, and there were a lot of 'Oh, my God' moments," Collins said Tuesday.
But Collins said the decision to take on the maintenance cost of the eight branch library buildings in the city came only in recent weeks.
"We didn't understand until we met two weeks ago the full impact of the eight city branches," Collins said. "That was a bit of an epiphany."
With the county picking up the tab for maintenance workers, cleaning supplies and other expenses for caring for those nine buildings, the library will have more money to spend on running programs and buying books.
"We could not have a better outlook without this collaboration," said Library Director Mary Jean Jakubowski.
Library leaders previously expected to spend about $1 million less next year on materials and books, but they believe that reduction will be closer to $500,000 under the latest proposal from Collins. They hope to fill the gap through fundraising.
The new proposal, however, will require some layoffs, Jakubowski and Collins acknowledged.
About 30 people work in full- or part-time maintenance positions at those nine library buildings, Jakubowski said.
Collins said a "significant number" of those workers would be transferred to the county when it takes on that work, but the hires would not be "one-for-one" for those who worked directly for the library.
"We don't have the exact numbers because we're still working on all of those particulars at this point in time," Jakubowski said. "Will there be positions or people who will not be transferred over? Certainly."
The county executive said he and library leaders saw the city branches as an opportunity to shift expenses to the county because those library workers are covered by the same union and contract as county buildings and grounds employees.
Under Collins' 2012 budget plan, the library would receive $20.2 million in cash from the county and would see a drop in expenses of another $2 million as the county takes on the extra maintenance costs. The county also would take on utility costs at the Central Library.
In Collins' view, that is the equivalent of the $22.2 million cash contribution the library system received from the county before this year. The county gave the library $21.2 million this year, and the library used another $1 million from its "rainy day" fund to make up the difference.
The breakdown of Collins' library proposal for 2012 looks like this:
The county would allocate $18.2 million from its operating budget to the library, keeping that budget line the same as this year.
The county would give the library system an additional $2 million from its fund balance in 2012. This year, the county allocated $3 million from its fund balance for the library.
The county would take on $2 million worth of maintenance work that had been paid for by the library.
The library system operates on an annual budget of about $26 million, pulling the rest of the funding from other sources, including state aid and grants, Jakubowski said.
Collins previously abandoned a proposal to shift the cost of maintaining the branch libraries in villages and towns to those municipalities.
Collins, a Republican, is running for re-election in November and has been criticized by his Democratic opponent, Mark C. Poloncarz, for proposing funding cuts for the libraries last year.
Poloncarz has accused Collins of creating a "manufactured" crisis for the library system last year when the county executive proposed cutting its county subsidy.
Collins bristles at that suggestion.
"The problems in the library are not in the county's creation," Collins said. "The problems are that the state has cut funding, the pension costs have skyrocketed for all of us, health insurance costs are up. I'm simply stating the obvious in this kind of budgetary climate. The county taxpayer cannot backstop the state."
The library's board of trustees is moving forward with a plan to create a form of governance for the system in which residents would vote on the library's budget. Under that plan, the county would no longer provide direct operating subsidies to the library system.
That proposal is expected to take two to three years to complete.