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Library in limbo: How low can it go? 

Administrators of the Monroe County Library System are “sitting on pins and needles” these days, says MCLS director Richard Panz, but not in anticipation of the long-delayed fifth Harry Potter book.

            In this case, it’s the figures for the county’s share of the library system’s 2003 budget that are late --- over three months late, and counting. And given prior reductions in city and state’s share of the library budget, library administrators will likely have to perform some financial sorcery to avoid major cuts in hours and services in the near future.

            The MCLS consists of three interconnected parts: the Central Library (which includes the Rundel Library Building and the Bausch & Lomb Public Library Building), 10 branch libraries located within the city, and 41 public libraries scattered throughout the county. Each part is funded by a different mix of public and private sources. It’s a budgetary scheme that couldn’t be more complicated if it was devised by “a group of baboons,” quipped MCLS trustee George Wolf.

            However, the complexity of library funding isn’t the problem. Scarcity is.

            Most of the city’s share of the budget goes toward the 10 branch locations in Rochester. For the 2002-2003 fiscal year that began July 1, the city provided $3.2 million --- $78,000 less than last year. That’s forced library administrators to shave operating hours at the municipal branches by about 5 percent, a move that will eliminate Sunday hours at the Arnett and Winton branches this fall, among other reductions.

            Concerning the city’s share, “the news is not great,” Panz says, “but it could be a lot worse.” For example, there’s the news this year from Albany.

            The state’s contribution, which covers the cost of inter-library services and a small-but-significant share of the Central Library’s expenses, is the same this year as it was in 1997: $2.1 million. As Panz sees it, years of stagnant state aid, combined with inflation, constitute a $350,000 loss in funding over the past five years.

            That shortage was a big factor in the recent decision to discontinue loans of videos and DVDs from Rundel to other libraries in the system, a policy that takes effect August 1. Panz says directors and trustees of other MCLS libraries are considering instituting this policy system-wide. He also says there’s been serious discussion this year among MCLS trustees to impose fees for holds and book transfers between MCLS libraries, a controversial idea many feel undermines one of the basic values of public libraries --- equal access to information.

            Though Panz says his “big beef right now is with the state,” regarding “the county, we just don’t know yet.”

            The county provides over 65 percent of the Central Library’s budget, and belt-tightening at the county level has already had an impact. The hiring freeze dictated earlier this year by County Executive Jack Doyle has left 20 vacant positions at the Central Library unfilled, and patrons are feeling the effects of staff shortages. “Someone called me today [complaining about having to] wait on hold for 45 minutes,” Panz said in a recent interview. “Part of that has to do with the job freeze... I’m gonna get more calls like that. There are less people to answer the phones.”

            Anticipating the county’s cut, the library has also stopped publishing its directory of neighborhood associations and a directory of human service agencies, resources it had provided the community for over 20 years.

            Further funding shortfalls will begin “cutting into the meat and bone” of library services, says Bill Pontius, executive director of the Friends of the Rochester Public Library. But without a sense of how much county money, if any, the system stands to lose this year, it’s impossible for anyone, library administrators included, to say how painful those cuts will be.

            County officials have traditionally provided the library system with budget figures in early April of each year. But by the end of June, the numbers were still not available --- a delay Panz says was unprecedented in his 13 years as director.

            County Legislator Karla Boyce, the lej’s liaison to the MCLS Board of Trustees, did not return calls seeking comment.

            County administration spokesman James Smith says the administration intends to provide the library with budget figures “as quickly as possible,” but would not speculate as to when that might be. Smith cites the county’s current budget squeeze as the reason the library’s 2003 figures are late this year. He says the county will have a better idea how much money the library will get after other financial data --- such as savings realized when county employees take advantage of an early retirement plan --- is calculated.

            Smith also notes that the county’s budget priorities are public safety and public health. “There are need-to-have services and nice-to-have services,” he says.

            Panz and his fellow administrators are well aware of Doyle’s request that administrators of all county departments, including the library, prepare scenarios that take spending reductions of 10, 15, and 20 percent into account.

            But in the absence of budget figures from the Doyle administration, the MCLS budgeted a county contribution of $7.4 million for this fiscal year, the same amount it had received from the county for the past several years. “We tried to pick a conservative number, one that wouldn’t devastate library services,” Panz says. “Had there been a 5-percent cut, it would really start showing some erosion of services, and the county could come back and say, ‘We didn’t tell you to cut anything.’”

            A 5-percent cut in county funds would be tough to absorb, but a 10-percent cut threatens to cause more than twice the financial strain on services offered by the Central Library that a 5-percent cut would entail.

            That’s because of a semi-obscure state provision that cuts state funding for a system’s central library by 25 percent if the library fails to secure 95 percent of its budget from local sources over a period of two years. Thus, a 10-percent cut in county funds this year, averaged with last year’s flat county funding, risks triggering a state aid penalty that would cost the Central Library roughly $75,000 in fiscal year 2003-2004.

            The library would have the opportunity to request a waiver or pursue other action to avoid the penalty. But failing that, Panz says such a cut in state aid would result in a further reduction of both services and hours at the Central Library.

            Both Panz and Smith say county budget officers are aware of the provision.

            It’s rare for a library to incur that penalty. Susan Kettle, executive director of the New York Library Association, says she’s aware of only one case of it happening since 1989. But given what many perceive as the state’s general indifference to library funding, it’s not unimaginable to library administrators and supporters like Pontius.

            Libraries can cut their hours as much as necessary to balance the books, Pontius says, but if they drop below the minimum number of yearly hours required by their charter, closure becomes a real possibility.

            Although Panz says he’s “worried” by the possibility of a state cut triggered by a cut in county funding, he says the county budget office is aware of the 95-percent provision and “we’re hoping that’ll be kept in consideration.

            “The people in the county budget office have been supportive,” continued Panz, who’s retiring as MCLS director this winter. Though he doesn’t know if the budget delay “is good news or bad news” for Monroe County’s libraries, he says, “I’m a fairly optimistic person.”

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