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Give and take 

When government tightens the Rochester Public Library's belt, full-time staff tends not to get cut, unlike books and hours. But in the 2004-05 budget, four full-time children's librarians will become part-timers.

            What makes this year especially difficult for library administrators is that the RPL now falls below or barely meets certain state requirements. And when those requirements aren't met, instead of giving more money to needy libraries the state makes further cuts.

            City Council amended Mayor Bill Johnson's proposed budget last week, adding $51,600 for the RPL: $21,600 for staff and $30,000 for book purchases. The money lets the RPL avoid a cutback in state funding for the moment, but the threat is still there. And despite the extra city money, the library will have to cut services.

            The staff scalebacks, administrators say, will be palpable. Librarians will visit city schools less often, says Betty Lawrence, assistant director of the RPL and administrator of the city's branch libraries. Hours will be reduced at some branch libraries. Two full-time positions will be eliminated: one library assistant and an aide.

            The Rochester Public Library consists of the central library on South Avenue downtown and 10 branches: Arnett, Charlotte, Highland, Lincoln, Lyell, Maplewood, Monroe, Sully, Phyllis Wheatley, and Winton. It's part of the Monroe County Library System, along with 19 town libraries.

            Carol Nersinger had been director of the county library system just three weeks when she gave a no-nonsense talk at a city budget hearing on June 16. Her previous job at the state library makes her very aware, she said, of budget challenges. "I don't think you really appreciate the ramifications [of cuts] until you're sitting in the director's chair," Nersinger told members of City Council.

            Nersinger, who used to be a reference librarian at the downtown library, said she can feel the cuts made in previous years to staff and librarian hours when she is in city branches.

            "When I walk through the halls," she said, "what strikes me is we have no staff in the buildings."

Thanks to the additional city funding, the Arnett and Lincoln branches will maintain their summer Saturday schedule, and the RPL will meet the state's mandate for hours of service in the library system. Not meeting the mandate would have meant the loss of $100,000 in state funds.

            "That was a smart move," says Library Finance Director Kevin Loughran. "We were going to request a waiver."

            The RPL will probably have to seek a waiver, however, on a different issue. When Loughran crunched the numbers this year, he found that the RPL has not maintained the level of local tax support required by the state. That could cost the RPL a quarter of its Central Library Development and Book Aid --- almost $75,000.

            "Based on my calculations, I think that the Rochester Public Library won't make it," says Loughran. "The state will let us know in the next couple of months, and then we'll ask for a waiver."

            And "probably next year," says Loughran, "the Monroe County Library System will face that problem."

            "From what I can see it's razor-thin right now," he says.

            Funding has been fairly consistent in the past, Loughran says. Recent cuts present an unprecedented challenge. "This is my 19th budget and we've never reached this point in 19 years," he says. "We knew it was coming, and now it's here. So we'll just have to see what happens."

At the Lincoln Branch, a hiring freeze has left a library assistant position vacant since earlier this year. That has meant a backlog and subsequent delay in the circulation of some Spanish-language materials.

            Staff at the central library has been cut about 30 percent since 2001, Loughran says, and the amount spent on books at all libraries is down about 20 percent from two years ago. The extra city funding will allow the RPL to buy more books, with a special focus on Spanish materials for the Lincoln Branch.

            Loughran says the book budget is key to maintaining library quality.

            "A lot of this stuff you can never get back," he says, referring to books that are printed once or twice and then removed from circulation. "The depth and breadth of the collection suffers."

            Nersinger says she is pleased about the city's amended budget. "Every little bit helps, so I am very grateful that they restored some funding to the city branches," she says.

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