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A tale of two views on funding and staffing

Editor's note: Over the next two weeks, The Buffalo News will outline the differing views of the two major candidates for Erie County executive on the major issues facing the county

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In local politics these days, books are a hot topic.

The two candidates running for Erie County executive have sharply different views on how the county's 37 public libraries should be funded, staffed and maintained.

One candidate says the libraries need to stand alone and raise funds separately.

The other says the libraries need to stay part of Erie County's tax bill.

County support from all sources for the public library system in 2011 totaled $21,171,833, according to library administrators.

Read on for more about the views on libraries of incumbent Chris Collins and challenger Mark C. Poloncarz.

>Chris Collins

Collins is firmly behind a plan to spin off the Buffalo & Erie County Library from county funding by 2015.

The Republican has spent the last few months working with library officials to develop a three-year funding plan to keep the library budget steady until a special taxing district can be created.

"I'm working with the library," Collins said. "They need and want and should have a special legislative district that breaks them free of the politics of county government."

Under Collins' proposal, the county would provide the equivalent of $22.2 million in cash and services annually through 2014.

If voters approve the special legislative district, the county then would cut its tax levy.

Collins said he wants the county to absorb $2 million in building maintenance costs for the Central Library and eight city branches in Buffalo and provide $20.2 million in annual operating funding to the library.

"We've got a rock-solid plan for the next three years," Collins said. "And what does my opponent say? No, I'm going to tell the libraries they can't have a special legislative district."

The proposal to create a special legislative district would require a public vote.

Collins' view on the library has evolved since fall 2010, when he proposed cutting $4 million from the county's subsidy to the library.

He later agreed to restore $3 million for 2011, bringing the total county funding for the library system to $21.1 million.

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>Mark C. Poloncarz

The current Erie County comptroller has fond memories of using the Lackawanna Public Library as a kid. He has used the Central Library for research and visited smaller branches.

That has led Poloncarz, a Democrat, to the conclusion that the county's public libraries need to preserve their role as research facilities Ñ while appealing to broad segments of the community as gathering places for learning and fun.

"The library is the great leveler for the masses," Poloncarz said. "It's the most public thing you have. It's free, it's open to anybody, at any age, no matter what's in your wallet."

Poloncarz said he does not think a special taxing district is the best way to fund the libraries. He said that solution is too cumbersome and adds an extra layer of bureaucracy.

"A special district is a government," he said. "It has its own taxes, its own board of directors, its own governance."

Poloncarz said that as county executive, he would fund libraries at a healthy level using funds that are already in the county budget, without adding new taxes.

"In the end, there is sufficient money in the county budget to keep up the county library system," he said.

Poloncarz added that a special district might eventually privilege libraries in wealthier communities over others in poorer ones, especially if towns would be responsible for covering the costs of maintaining their own buildings -- a proposal Collins had broached at one point.

"What you're going to have then is a system of haves and have-nots," he said.

Poloncarz said that he thinks the library's current size -- 37 branches, down from 52 -- is about the right one for the region, and he does not foresee shuttering any more branches.

TUESDAY: Roads

email: cvogel@buffnews.com and djgee@buffnews.com