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Press & Sun-Bulletin (Binghamton, NY)

February 10, 2003

AGENDA 2003 - Our libraries at risk

Author: MARY PAT HYLAND
STAFF

Section: FRONT
Page: 05A

Estimated printed pages: 7

Article Text:

Legislators, libraries offer ideas for funding solutions

This is the second of a two-part series on funding problems facing Broome County's nine libraries.

Broome County Legislature Chairman Daniel A. Schofield, R-Endicott, has been busy lately trying to sell his latest idea to municipal and library leaders: countywide centralization of all of Broome's libraries.

Schofield is proposing that the county cap sales tax revenues that it distributes among the municipalities to $32 million. These revenues typically see a 2 percent growth each year. He would like to take that money and use it to run the libraries in the county. Here's how his plan works:

Using Johnson City as an example, Schofield said that the village received $2 million in sales tax revenues from the county in 2002. If that number were capped at that level, the 2 percent of growth that is seen typically each year -- $40,000 -- would be kept by the county to run the library. Johnson City currently pays $200,000 a year to run its Your Home Library. In five years, the village would lose $200,000 of sales tax revenues. But, Schofield points out, it would regain $1 million in its village budget that would have been put toward running the library.

The beauty of his plan, Schofield said, is that the public doesn't get hit with another tax increase. It would also mean that the libraries would be more tightly managed, he said. His plan would also expand the current Broome County Public Library Board membership from nine to 18. It would be composed of a territorial-specific representation of the communities that are part of the system. Library staffing would remain the same during the transition.

"We're all in this together," Schofield said. "I believe this is a good solution. If we don't act, we may end up slowly shutting down the system, library by library."

On Jan. 23, Schofield met with municipal leaders to discuss his plan. It was a tough sell because towns that don't have a library don't have the sense of urgency about their future, he said. They seem to feel that the responsibility of ownership should fall on the villages that built them, he said. It's a frustrating outlook that could slow any consolidation efforts, he said.

"Is it going to be another 30 years before we consolidate one more thing?" he wonders.

The centralization plan is one that Broome County Public Library Board Director Michael Shafer says makes the most sense. "I don't think this is the time to talk to the people in Broome about establishing another taxing district. A Broome County system would be fair and equitable for residents in all of the county," he said.

On Feb. 6, Schofield presented his plan again at the Broome County Centralization and Consolidation Committee meeting. Directors of most of the libraries and several town supervisors listened and offered their opinions as the legislators discussed Schofield's plan.

William T. Wike, R-Endicott, said he hoped the committee would be able to determine "what is the best way to do long-term funding of Broome County's libraries."

Schofield envisions his plan as a way to save the libraries now, and then in the future when things improve, rescind the cap and encourage the libraries to form a county library district.

Broome County Public Library Director Donna Riegel said Florida's library systems thrive today with many branches under a centralized budget. She said they use the rule of thumb that there should be a library for every 25,000 people. With that in mind, Riegel said a recent study showed certain areas of Broome are underserved. She would like to see that remedied with additional library branches opening in Kirkwood (at the former state police barracks) and on Hooper Road in Endwell (in the former Giant grocery).

Thomas A. Hull, R-Town of Binghamton, was happy to hear his underserved area might get a library but questioned the need for the sales tax cap, when it appears that only two libraries are in real trouble, Endicott and Johnson City's. He said maybe an Endicott library isn't needed since there is the Vestal library just a couple miles away.

Vestal Supervisor Anndrea Starzak also opposed a sales tax cap, because she said it is the town's main source of revenue.

At the end of the meeting, Town of Union Supervisor John E. "Jack" Cheevers said he would be willing to sit down with Schofield to draft a plan for the town to take control of the Endicott and Johnson City libraries. In the past the town had contributed money to both, he said, but that changed when the Kraham Formula provided them county support for non-municipal patrons who are county residents.

Janet Ottman, director of Your Home Library in Johnson City, said later she was thankful for the passion that Schofield has shown on this issue and she was encouraged to see the turnout at the meeting.

Funding district proposed

Last December, David J. Karre, director of the Four County Library System sat down with state library directors to discuss another possibility for Broome: a countywide funding district. The idea was part of a list recommended in the Regents-backed New Century Libraries initiative.

The countywide district, similar to Albany's school district library, has yet to be done in the state. "You're charting your own course," Karre was told by state officials.

He has been meeting with the directors of Broome's nine libraries to discuss the feasibility of such a plan for funding. He said he has yet to bring the proposal before elected officials because he wanted to make sure all the libraries were interested in pursuing the plan.

Here's how it differs from the Schofield plan: Instead of the county controlling all the libraries, it will serve as their tax collection agent. Karre said it's important to remember that libraries are currently funded by taxes. What this method would do is give taxpayers more control over where their tax dollars go. Many people were shocked when they got their property tax bills to see how much went to Medicaid even though they probably will never need it, Karre said. The beauty of this method, he said, is that taxpayers will know that 100 percent of money collected by this levy will go toward funding libraries.

Under the plan, libraries would retain their autonomy and boards. Karre said a special funding board might be created to determine the district funding budget each year.

Karre hopes enough support can be gathered to put a referendum before voters in November. As part of the initial levy to be voted on, Karre would like to include a designated amount to pay for a study on where library services are needed elsewhere in the county down the road.

Ottman disagrees with the argument by taxpayers in communities that don't have a library that such a levy is unfair for them.

"All communities are connected with the nine Broome libraries electronically if not geographically," she said. "When someone calls asking for a used car price from a Blue Book, we don't ask if the caller is from Johnson City or Conklin. And access to Your Home Library's catalog is available to all online," she said.

Penalty for inaction

There is a possible fallout from the pull-back of library funding that the public probably isn't aware of, Karre said. The state Education Department has a penalty clause in the contract of funding it provides to libraries. If a local library system has more than a 5 percent cut in local funding over two years, it faces a 25 percent reduction in funds from the state.

On top of that, Gov. Pataki's budget proposal cuts local library funding by 15 percent -- a $240,000 reduction for the Four-County system.

Karre fears that the "seriousness of cuts, the depth of the fiscal crisis (state and national) will cause such a huge elimination of services and programs that we'll never be able to recapture the level of services and programs seen in 1990s-level funding.

"It truly is a snowball rolling downhill," he said.

This community's library problems are not unique. They extend across the Southern Tier and to the four corners of this nation. The Elmira Star-Gazette recently reported that Chemung County, also being hammered by state-mandated Medicaid costs, will cut funding for the Steele Memorial Library in Elmira by $250,000 in 2004 and $500,000 in 2005. The library receives about 73 percent of its funding from the county.

Maurice J. Freedman, president of the American Library Association, told the paper that "ups and downs are cyclical, but this is different. This is without precedent."

Looking back at his own budget decisions, Binghamton Mayor Richard A. Bucci is not concerned his legacy will be the mayor who closed four library branches. Instead, he says, he thinks the public will remember that "at a time when the region was in the midst of repeated economic challenges, I was able to keep the city financially solvent."

Bucci said the state budget has gone completely out of control. He and other mayors have agreed that if the state faces another spike in the deficit, state Comptroller Alan G. Hevesi must find a way to smooth out the burden put on local governments, perhaps through installment payments.

"You can't continue to drop huge bombs on local governments without expecting a dramatic impact on them," Bucci said.

Adapting to change

Some Binghamton residents have reluctantly begun to adapt to the closings. Millie Mintz said she used to visit the Foundry Branch six days a week. A senior citizen, Mintz said she liked to use the computers for writing and Internet access. She kept a up steady e-mail correspondence with her friend in Italy. After having waited months for a reply, it delighted her that she would receive one instantly.

But now she goes to the central library on Court Street just a couple times a week. "It's not as convenient. Now I have to wait in line to check out books. I can't go at the same time I used to go because it's difficult to find a parking space."

When the branch closed, Mintz knew it would affect the lives of other seniors who walked to the branch because they don't have a car. "I don't think they go downtown. I haven't run into them," she said.

Ellen Coulson used to visit the Foundry Branch once a week to take out two books every other week she'd sit and read the periodicals. Since then she has begun to visit the central library. She was impressed. "It was very comfortable there to sit and read the periodicals. Very easy to park," she said.

But the change still bothers her. "Libraries are all part of education they shouldn't have to close," she said. "It's like we're going back in time to be so far away from the services," she said.

As for the future of Binghamton's branch libraries, it would take some quick, innovative funding to bring them back. For a solution to be acceptable, County Historian Gerry Smith said it should be one that is long-term for the workers. "We can't be yanking people's lives back and forth," he said.

Unfortunately, when it comes to funding, "libraries are always low on the totem pole of the public dole," he said. The CSEA union he represents is not opposed to innovative funding or consolidation. "What we really need is a sugar daddy to take care of the next three years."

It's now the responsibility of Greater Binghamton's residents to study the plans on the table: Schofield's centralization plan or a countywide funding district. The people must review them, debate them and voice their opinion on which is the best approach. Any action will be better than none. If we don't act, our silence will rob future generations of a right so many of us have taken for granted: access to public libraries.

e-mail: mhylandpressconnects.com

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