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A taxing district to end roller coaster ride of library funding? Elected officials aren’t onboard

Officials of the Buffalo & Erie County Public Library have grappled with three major budget cuts over the last decade, leading them to lose faith in the ability of elected officials to fund the system.

They say the library is at a crossroads, and they see the solution as a referendum that would allow voters to decide library budgets, as well as elect library trustees. Their goal is to create a special library taxing district, similar to suburban school districts that levy their own taxes.

There is just one rub: Library officials are turning to those same politicians for help to pull this off. Legally, the library does not need the County Legislature or the county executive to sign off on the ballot referendum. However, both the State Legislature and Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo must approve such a referendum, and a local “home rule message” typically precedes such state action.

But the local politicians aren’t onboard.

“I am vigorously opposed to the creation of any new taxing district or new layer of government being added to the burden that Erie County residents already bear,” said County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz.

County Legislature Chairman John J. Mills, R-Orchard Park, also opposes the idea, saying the change would take library funding “out of the control of county government.”

Library officials say that’s the whole idea. Undeterred, they vow to press on with their campaign to educate the public and sway local politicians to their side.

“The library has long been at a financial crossroads, and that’s really the impetus for looking at alternate sources of governance and financial backing,” said Mary Jean Jakubowski, director of the county library system.

Roller-coaster budgets

The library receives $22.6 million this year to fund 37 libraries, pay staff and buy books, CDs and DVDs. But the libraries haven’t always been allocated that much, even though county tax bills include a line labeled “library tax.” It is not a dedicated revenue; it merely reflects how much county officials decide to allocate each year.

As the county dealt with the “red-green” budget crisis and other fiscal problems over the last decade, the library system’s budget was cut by $7 million in 2005, resulting in the closing of 15 branches, layoffs of more than 200 and reduced library hours. That was followed by a $1.6 million hit to the library’s budget in 2009 and another cut of $1 million in 2011.

That history prompted library officials to look for a way to stabilize funding and avoid taking hits whenever the county has fiscal problems.

Under the proposed special taxing district, the county would continue to collect the money on behalf of the library system. But the library would get to set its own levy, subject to voter approval, just as happens in most school districts – and in at least 47 other library systems across the state.

Erie County library officials say that would provide more predictable funding and eliminate the roller-coaster ride the system has experienced.

Some patrons agree.

“I think whenever you give more power to the people, it’s a good idea,” Joanne Williams said as she stopped into the Lancaster Public Library on one recent day.

Morgan Smith was checking out books at the Clarence Public Library.

“Basically, it sounds like a good idea. When you have two different groups making decisions, it’s always a compromise,” Smith said of the current system in which the library is dependent on county government.

But Shirley Smith, of Lancaster, was skeptical of the public vote.

“I would think if they left it up to the voters, they would approve less money for the libraries,” said Smith, who described herself as a fairly frequent patron of the Lancaster Public Library.

“A lot of voters don’t necessarily think about the library when they’re not using it,” Smith said.

Smith said she has an adult son who lives near a former library branch in Cheektowaga that was closed in 2005.

“He couldn’t have cared less if the library closed, and the one near him did,” Smith said. “Now he has a daughter, and he says he wishes that the library near him was still open.”

Battle for the books

Library funding was a big issue in the 2011 campaign, when Poloncarz defeated then-County Executive Chris Collins. Poloncarz restored some library funding when he took office in 2012, but remains vigorously opposed to the creation of any new taxing districts, which he described as “needless governmental mechanisms that drain resources from our community.”

“My administration has increased library funding by more than $700,000, returning it to healthy and sustainable levels, and we have included funding for a new bookmobile and capital improvements,” Poloncarz added.

“My commitment to a strong and viable library system remains undiminished, and this is not the time for the creation of needless governmental mechanisms that drain resources from our community.”

Mills, the Legislature chairman, is skeptical that the issue will even make it onto the November ballot.

“I’m not personally in favor. Nor am I going to speak for anybody else, but I haven’t heard anybody else in the Legislature in favor of it,” Mills said. “It’s another taxing district. It takes it out of the control of the county government.”

At a committee meeting Thursday attended by almost all the legislators, none voiced support for letting the library system appeal directly to voters.

Noting that a library referendum would need state authorization, Mills said he hasn’t “heard anything on the Senate side.” He said his constituents prefer that county officials continue assuming responsibility for the libraries.

“I think what that does is allows us to control the spending part of the libraries,” Mills said. “The libraries have to reinvent themselves.”

Jakubowski counters that it is difficult to pursue innovations without consistent funding, but she does not dispute that funding has improved under Poloncarz.

“First, I want to say County Executive Poloncarz has supported the library. We have had some restored funding. We are very grateful for that,” she said.

“My concern is: What happens when this county executive is no longer in office? Do we go back on our roller-coaster ride?”

Getting off the coaster

After closing two libraries under the same kind of fiscal constraints that hit Erie County, Chemung County officials created their own library taxing district in 2006.

“Basically, had it remained under the county, they would have shuttered a couple more within a few years. So the only way to secure the continued existence of the libraries, at the time, was to go a special district,” said Ronald W. Shaw, Chemung County Library District director since 2010.

Shaw, who used to be library executive director in Lewiston, recalls how libraries there and in Niagara Falls got caught up in municipal budget battles, “and there’s nothing you can do.”

“When you’re sitting there and you’re talking: What do you need, more police, fire, roads, highways? Most people are going to say, ‘Give me the police and the fire,’ ” Shaw said. “The libraries, sometimes, are not perceived as being essential.”

Chemung – a much smaller system with a $2.9 million budget – merged two districts and put control in voters’ hands, which simplified things, Shaw said. In the last three years, Chemung County libraries have sought increases twice, of between 2 percent and 2.3 percent, with each increase approved by more than 70 percent of voters, Shaw said.

“I tell the staff: If we do our jobs correctly, the people are going to be there to support us,” he said.

He emphasized that giving the library system taxing power does not necessarily mean higher overall taxes.

“Realistically, if it’s a $10 million (county) budget and you take $1 million out for the library, … you’re not adding anything because the county is not collecting the $1 million for libraries. It’s going directly to the library,” he said. “But people think it’s $10 million with an additional $1 million tax, and that’s just not how it is.”

‘Community is key’

After the 2009 budget cuts, Erie County library trustees sought a report called “Book Smart” by the University at Buffalo’s Regional Institute to explore various library governance models across New York State.

“One of the trustees asked the Regional Institute, now that you’ve done all this research for us, … can you tell us what your opinion is? And they said to us, ‘A library district is the only way to go to stabilize your funding,’ ” Jakubowski said.

The bifurcated Erie County library system gives the Central Library board oversight of the downtown library and the eight branches in Buffalo. The system also provides support for the county’s 22 suburban and rural libraries. A 15-member board oversees the entire system, but each suburban contract library also has its own board, creating a labyrinth of 23 boards with 130 trustees operating 37 libraries.

If voters were to approve the independent library district, that would change – at least on paper – creating a single, systemwide board elected by residents and making the other boards “advisory,” Jakubowski said.

“What’s very important to note is that community is key in all of this, and what we never want to see is cookie-cutter libraries,” she added. “We know that Lackawanna is different than the Crane Library on Elmwood and the North Collins Library in our rural communities. We know that.”

In reality, the Central Library board allocates funding to the suburban libraries now, with input from the 22 local boards. Operationally, that would not change once the other boards become advisory.

The real change is that the library system would be in charge of its own fate.

“We have been on a roller-coaster ride of financial balance pretty much throughout our history,” Jakubowski said. “I mean, there were some times that were very, very good, (but) most of the times, it has been a struggle from year to year.”