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Picturing a new chapter for libraries; Voters would be key under trustees' plan

It was not an easy sell.

Library leaders spent months meeting with then-County Executive Chris Collins to convince him that residents should vote directly on budgets and elect trustees to run Erie County's 37 libraries.

He agreed.

But now, with a new county executive in office, they're back at square one.

And this time, they have to convince an elected official who adamantly campaigned against the idea.

"I think we all agree we want to have strong libraries," said County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz. "But I've never been in favor of the creation of another government to solve that problem."

The trustees of the Buffalo & Erie County Public Library remain undeterred.

They see the creation of a special library legislative district as a way to stabilize funding and end the type of budget uncertainity that led to the closure of 15 libraries during the "red" and "green" budget years of County Executive Joel Giambra.

"This puts the budget in the hands of the people," said Mary Jean Jakubowski, the library's director. "The voters of Erie County would make the determination as to whether or not they would secure a budget for us."

Library officials will meet with Poloncarz later this month to explain their plan. Some legislators see it as a pivotal meeting as the library pushes forward with the idea of spinning off the library's budget from county control.

Other hurdles remain, too. Most, but not all, of the local libraries have signed on to the plan. A state law creating the new library district would have to be passed, and then Erie County residents would vote on the idea.

Library trustees also will have to bridge a gap between the way skeptical county lawmakers view the plan and the way trustees perceive it.

Library leaders see their plan as a consolidation that would free library funding from politics and merge a sprawling system under one board. Skeptical lawmakers see it as a new layer of government with elected, unpaid library trustees who do their own politicking.

It's almost as if they're having two different conversations.

The Buffalo & Erie County Library operates now as a federated system with 37 library buildings run by 23 trustee boards. That includes the 15-member Library Board appointed by the county executive and the mayor of Buffalo, as well as 22 other boards made up of roughly 130 people appointed by local towns and villages.

Funding, however, is in the hands of the county executive and the County Legislature, leaving the library at times dealing with sudden budget cuts that have forced trustees to trim hours or close libraries.

In 2005 and 2006, in the midst of a county budget crisis, 15 libraries were closed. That left library trustees thinking about new ways to run the system. Then, in 2010, Collins proposed cutting millions of dollars from the library budget, rekindling the idea.

"I really think that if we are independent of the county and the county budget process, that we'll be able to chart our own course without having to worry about the political ups and downs," said Suzanne Jacobs, a Lancaster library trustee and president of the Association of Contract Library Trustees.

The library trustees are proposing to create a special library legislative district run by one independent board whose trustees are elected by voters. Residents would also vote on proposed increases or decreases to the library system budget, Jakubowski said.

Library officials envision one elected trustee from each of the 11 districts that currently make up the County Legislature, but details of how the new taxing district would be laid out would come in a bill that has yet to be introduced in the State Legislature.

"Really, what we're doing is we're stripping away 23 separate decision-making boards and creating one decision-making board," Jack Connors, chairman of the library's board of trustees, recently told county legislators.

But without support from local lawmakers, the proposal isn't likely to fly in Albany.

Several county legislators at a recent meeting expressed concerns about the proposal but said they would keep open minds. A spokesman for Mayor Byron W. Brown, who holds five appointments on the current Library Board, said he is "open to hearing more about the idea."

Poloncarz said he, too, wants to work with the Library Board and will sit down and talk about its plan, but he has significant doubts about a new taxing district.

"Once you create a new government, as you see in New York State, it's almost impossible to get rid of them, or for that matter modify them," Poloncarz said.

From the moment Poloncarz announced a run for county executive, in front of the Lackawanna Public Library, he made funding for libraries a top campaign issue. Collins, by then, was on board with the taxing district proposal. Poloncarz took the opposing view.

He believes the county can adequately fund the libraries.

"Going forward, I just don't think that the creation of a whole new level of government and the costs associated with that -- including what will inevitably be campaign fundraisers for the trustees of the library board and the like -- is something that's in the best interests of this community," Poloncarz said recently.

Poloncarz, during the campaign, cast the idea for a new library taxing district as "the purported Collins plan" and criticized it as a "massive undertaking and expense that will fall at the feet of Erie County's taxpayers."

Library trustees, however, say the plan was never generated by Collins and that, in fact, it took months to persuade Collins to support it.

"As much as everyone thinks this, this was not Chris Collins' idea," Connors said during a meeting with legislators. "This is something we have been working on ahead of time."

Jakubowski said the library has been working for more than two years on the initiative. Much of that effort has included working out details of the governance structure with member libraries.

The cost of creating a special district is also a concern for Poloncarz.

The library has hired a law firm, Whiteman, Osterman & Hanna, and a marketing company, Communications Services, to help draft proposed legislation to create the district and for marketing and education efforts.

So far, the library has spent $163,000 on legal services and $41,000 on marketing and education related to the effort in 2010 and 2011, said Joy Testa Cinquino, the library's assistant deputy director for development and communications.

"The board of trustees has a responsibility to research and expend funds to research anything that could benefit the library in the long term," Jakubowski said.

Jakubowski recently told county legislators that she believes the library system, back during the 2005 budget crisis, could have avoided closing any library buildings had it been a special library district.

Long-term planning, she said, is "almost an impossible task" in the current budget system in which library trustees sometimes don't know until October or later what the next year will bring.

"I'm grateful that Mr. Poloncarz believes that the county should take care of its own libraries," said Jacobs, the Lancaster library trustee. "But we're looking beyond that and saying, what about 10 years from now? What about 15 years from now when there's somebody else in office that doesn't believe in funding libraries.?"

email: djgee@buffnews.com

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New library setup

Buffalo & Erie County Public Library trustees hope to establish a special legislative district library system.

The plan would:

*Replace 23 trustee boards with one board to run the 37 branches.
*Let voters, not government officials, select the new board.
*Make the local trustee boards advisory.
*Let the trustees, not county officials, set the budget with voter approval.
*Call for most municipalities to still own library buildings.
*Require the State Legislature to create the special legislative district and county voters to approve it in a referendum, probably in 2013.