It's hard for anyone who cares about libraries not to sympathize with the position of the trustees of the Buffalo & Erie County Public Library, but County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz is right, nonetheless. The county should continue to fund the libraries out of its budget rather than having the library system set up a new taxing district.
Library trustees want their own taxing district because of the financial misery visited on them by Poloncarz' predecessor, Chris Collins. In pursuit of every dollar he could wring from the budget -- wisely or not -- Collins put the library on a trajectory to ruin.
The trustees' solution, which they eventually persuaded Collins to adopt, was the special taxing district. The library would set its own budget and tax rate, which would be subject to a public vote. Thus, the library would wrest control of its future from fickle politicians who may or may not care about libraries -- Collins didn't -- and secure that future. It's an attractive vision, as far as it goes.
But there are other considerations. For one, New York is already awash in taxing entities, and once they exist, they never go away. Generally speaking, it's a bad idea to create more of them. And, while Collins promised to reduce county taxes in an amount equal to the library district's proposed taxes, that promise doesn't bind Poloncarz or some future county executive.
Also, libraries count as an integral county service, not some optional add-on. They should be supported by the county's general fund. Of course, "should" doesn't mean anything if a county executive decides otherwise, but the risk is acceptable given the undesireable aspects of a new taxing district. One reason Collins lost was his failure to maintain funding for the libraries. That should be a lesson for any future county executive contemplating a similar move.
To be clear, we support full funding of Erie County's libraries, which are critical infrastructure in any community, especially one that is home to a city as poor as Buffalo. A library's books, magazines, Internet access and other reference material can be crucial to job searches and education.
What the library ought to do, though, is to streamline its governing structure to make it more efficient. Its current system, with 37 library buildings run by 23 trustee boards, is unwieldy in the extreme. The trustees' proposal to create a single independent to run the library system is a good one. A system that can speak with a single voice can better lobby for consistent levels of county funding.
To be sure, there are reasons to like library districts. The New York Library Association supports them for reasons of accountability, transparency and stability, according to Association Director Michael Borges. Those are real benefits, but in the end, they don't overcome the problems associated with creating new taxing entities. This is not a change the county should make.