Most Erie County residents support the Buffalo & Erie County Public Library. Former Erie County Executive Chris Collins lost, in part, because he cavalierly cut library funding, plunging the system into crisis.
For that reason, most county residents would likely support the library system's appeal to county leaders to restore its funding. We do as well, at least to the level it was when Collins made the cuts and, if financially possible, to an amount that would meet more needs of library users.
The library is mounting a postcard campaign to persuade County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz and county legislators to increase the library's funding by $3.6 million, to an amount higher than just before the Collins cuts. Even that figure, according to library data, still leaves the system short of filling a $3.7 million funding gap.
Here's how it breaks down: County funding of the library system this year is $21.9 million. The library's requested increase would bring that number to $25.5 million. By comparison, its 2011 funding was $21.2 million while, in 2008 – the year Collins took office – county funding was at $23.8 million. In 2004, funding reached a high of $28.7 million.
In that context, the library's request is hardly excessive. Indeed, Library Director Mary Jean Jakubowski says it will simply let the library meet the soaring demand for its services. That demand, she said, runs counter to the economy: When times are tough, library usage soars.
People are out of work and may not be able to afford Internet access, which is critical to finding employment. What is more, the library provides books and movies to those who may have lost the ability to pay for them.
Jakubowski and other library officials say there is rarely a time when all the available computers aren't in use. And, with long-term declines in library funding, hours of operation have been severely curtailed. Since the 2010 cuts, the system is open 1,500 fewer hours annually. The library's request would allow it to return hours to something close to the 2010 level, Jakubowski said.
None of this is unreasonable, but events don't happen in a vacuum, and the context that county leaders must take goes beyond the library's previous levels of funding. They must also factor in all other requests for funding in an economic environment that remains decidedly weak. Part of Poloncarz's job is deciding whom to disappoint.
That reality ties an executive's hands, as it should the Legislature's as well. The revenues are the revenues and unlikely in the short term to see a significant increase. With unemployment remaining high and property taxes continuing that way, it would be destructive – politically and economically – for Poloncarz to attempt to raise taxes.
At a minimum, Poloncarz should return the library to its funding level before the most recent cuts and, if it is possible and responsible, to grant the library's entire request. Libraries are important and the demand for services is there. It's not a small thing.
What is more, Poloncarz is looking askance at the library's proposal to create its own taxing district, and properly so. We sympathize with the library's desire to set its own course, but the county doesn't need more taxing entities. The alternative to that has to be a county government that responsibly supports the library system.
We're not sure the library's postcard campaign is the wisest tactic for making its case to Poloncarz, but there's nothing specifically wrong with the approach. The library has the right of free speech, too, but the fact is that it also has a responsibility to do more to restrain its own costs.
Although 15 branch libraries were closed seven years ago during another county budget crisis, the system remains inefficiently designed. It's nice to have as many libraries as we do – there are 36 branches in addition to the Central Library – but it should be plain at this point that we have more than we can afford.