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Journal News, The (Westchester County, NY)

February 6, 2003

Libraries feel sting of cuts

Author: Len Maniace; Staff
The Journal News

Section: News
Page: 1B

Index Terms:
GWP- Westchester and Putnam

Estimated printed pages: 5

Article Text:

Governments trim allocations, hours of operations decrease

Len Maniace

The Journal News

Betty Teoman stepped through an obstacle course of bricks and lumber at Rye Free Reading Room, where the library director is overseeing construction of a $3.5 million addition.

But even as crews work to meet a June deadline for the long-awaited expansion, the library's operations are contracting. Faced with a cash shortage, the Rye Free Reading Room cut its hours by 9 hours to 51 a week last month, becoming the second in Westchester after New Rochelle to reduce operations in as many years.

With the economy in the dumps, library officials predict tough times for libraries in our region and around the nation.

"When the economy gets tough and jobs are lost, public libraries wind up being used more, not less," Teoman said, "but unfortunately there's no continuity of funding."

The picture became even grimmer last week when Gov. George Pataki released a new state spending plan loaded with cuts for all kinds of services. His budget proposes cutting state aid to libraries by 14.8 percent to $75.6 million.

If the cut is adopted, regional library systems such as the Westchester Library System, where state funding makes up two-thirds of its $3.2 million budget, would be the hardest hit.

The Ardsley-based Westchester Library System has no branches of its own, but provides services to the county's 38 libraries, including a popular inter-library, book-loan program, the libraries' electronic catalog system and training for library staff.

State funding makes up roughly 80 percent of the budget for the Mid-Hudson Library System, which provides similar services for 65 libraries, including eight libraries in Putnam.

The state cuts would come after a 5 percent reduction late last year on county funding to the Westchester Library System, the first after a steady increase in funding over two decades. The system is cutting eight positions to deal with that reduction, said Maurice Freedman the system's director and president of the American Library Association.

"These latest cuts are going to dismantle a great deal of a system that took 20 years of work and great pain to create," Freeman said, referring to the proposed state reductions.

The cost-cutting isn't just taking place in Westchester:

Upstate, the Broome County Public Library permanently closed four branches in Binghamton at the end of last year, leaving open only the city's central library.

The Seattle Public Library System shut its doors for two weeks last year, a week in August and another in December.

In his new budget, Florida Gov. Jeb Bush has proposed elimination of the Florida State Library, created in 1845 and home to one million books and documents.

The New Rochelle Public Library began to run into trouble two years ago when it cut its hours from 65 hours to 61 per week. After two budgets were defeated by voters last year, the library was forced to cut its hours to 51 per week, falling below the state minimum standard of 55 hours for libraries in municipalities with at least 25,000 people.

The library faces a state review of its operation and, at least theoretically, the loss of its charter and a shutdown by the state.

"We are trying to hold it steady at 51 hours," said Peter Rothberg, president of the New Rochelle Public Library Board of Trustees, "and not to make additional cuts."

New Rochelle City Hall, which has its own financial troubles, said it will not provide regular funding to the library beyond June. Much of the library's problems came about after it shifted from being financed by the city to voter-approved budgets.

Library officials acknowledge that many local, county and state government-funded programs are suffering, not just libraries, but that does not ease the pain.

"It's difficult for anyone to raise taxes in these times, so services are getting cut," Rothberg said.

Officials in some libraries, whose budget years begin in July, are still waiting to hear from voters or municipal officials.

Steve Force, director of Westchester's biggest library, the Yonkers Public Library, says he doesn't know whether the library faces reduced hours.

"I don't think we will be hit harder than any other agency in the city," he said. "If the economy is bad, we all suffer."

But costs are increasing for the Yonkers Public Library due to the opening last September of its popular new larger library downtown, which was visited by 77,000 people in December 2002, compared with 26,000 visitors to the old building the same month a year earlier.

Since staffing makes up about 70 percent of the libraries' expenses and utilities, with cleaning and similar items accounting for most of the rest, Force said, "Hours are certainly one of the things that get cut if the library takes a significant cut."

One of Westchester's smallest libraries, the Hiram Halle Memorial Library in Pound Ridge, is taking steps to avoid further cuts beyond a three-hour reduction in weekly operations in 1992 - the most recent time many libraries faced tough times economically. That reduction left the library open 33 hours a week, the fewest of any library in the county.

The library hopes to switch from relying on town funding and contributions to having its budget approved by residents. The changeover would require a vote by the Town Board and a public referendum.

"We've never been able to restore those hours," library director Marilyn Tinter said yesterday. "We hope at least to restore them and possibly be open more."

In Putnam, the Patterson Library appears likely to escape financial problems during the next year, library director Patti Haar said, owing to a healthy budget increase approved by voters in last year's budget. Voter-approved budgets cannot be reduced, giving libraries some stability. But that stability erodes over several years as inflation takes its toll on a budget that remains constant, Haar said.

The Rye Free Reading Room ran into budget problems when income from its endowment and other investments tumbled with the rest of the stock market. The library faced additional costs for utilities, insurance and other items, because of the 6,000-square-foot addition to its 15,000-square-foot building, at the same time.

To cover that gap, the library asked for a 10 percent increase in 2003 funding from the Rye City Council. The city, however, faced with its own budget problems was able to increase funding by 2 percent, a figure that amounted to just under $16,000.

With library expenses expected to rise next year, when the library addition is expected to operate for a full year, library officials are already making plans to seek more city funding, Teoman said.

"It's important for the city to be more involved here," Teoman said, "and for the city to make more of a commitment to the library."

Reach Len Maniace at lmaniace@thejournalnews.com or 914-694-3525.

Copyright (c) The Journal News. All rights reserved. Reproduced with the permission of Gannett Co., Inc. by NewsBank, inc.
Record Number: wst2003020610230058