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The Book on the Libraries

With its own trustees silent, what are the odds that the public library system will win back its funding?

The scene in the small conference room on the second floor of the Buffalo and Erie County Central Library one afternoon late last week was calm and, for the most part, there was a friendly, business-as-usual tone as the county library system’s board of trustees met. Board members greeted each other and chatted, and one member brightly told another, “This is going to be a good meeting; I’ve got a feeling.”

But that afternoon, one floor below the conference room, there was unmistakable evidence of the massive financial crisis and upheaval facing the library system. Books and periodical shelves were being emptied and materials packed for storage, and preparations were being made to bar public access to large areas of the currently open stacks that occupy most of the Central Library’s main floor.

Under a plan previously approved by the trustees who were holding their meeting, many of the people who were doing this work will probably not be employed after the end of this year. In response to Erie County Executive Chris Collins’ reduction of $4 million in the library system’s budget (out of a total of about $27 million), at least 200 full- and part-time staff members will be out of a job.

The system is to go on a severe austerity footing. No library will close—unlike in 2005, when 15 did—but a “hub” configuration will go into effect, with a few library branches maintaining full or nearly full hours of operation, and most of the branches being drastically cut—in many cases to between 16 and 24 hours per week. Before the meeting, I stopped at the library’s centrally located gift shop and asked the young woman behind the counter if she knew why it was due for closing. She said little information was being shared by those at the top, but she did know this would be her last week on the job.

Upstairs, little sense of these radical dislocations and the contraction of services was apparent at the trustees’ meeting. There was one hint when libraries director Bridget Quinn-Carey told them, “We continue to open our doors and go on with our programs every day.” Although, strictly speaking, this was less and less so, and will become an even more unreliable summary of what’s happening in the library system if the county executive’s budget is passed by the legislature.

The air of detachment at the trustees’ meeting was rather strange since they, of course, were responsible for initiating the wide, deep and sharp retrenchments whose effects can now be seen in the Central Library. This unpleasant reality was brought into the calm, upbeat congeniality of the meeting by Peter Scheck, a slim, deferentially soft-spoken young man who addressed the trustees during the brief public comments period. He’s one of the six out of eight rare books and special collections librarians scheduled for termination. Scheck is also the librarian whose discovery of a previously unknown Mark Twain letter inside an old book has been celebrated by journalists and scholars recently.

“I won’t be here after January,” he quietly informed the panel. And then, almost as quietly, he told them, “You’re not going to attract the best talent if you’re seen as not fighting for the libraries.”

The trustees’ public quiescence has become something of an issue. No one from their number spoke at the legislature’s committee hearing on “cultural” budget cuts, a meeting that drew so many people hundreds of them couldn’t be admitted to County Hall. None of the trustees, nor library administrators, has taken a public stand anywhere. Elizabeth Berry, president of Save Our Libraries, an independent advocacy group, was blunt. She said people all over Erie County are asking, “Where are you when we are fighting to save your budget?”

Timothy Galvin, president of the Buffalo and Erie County Librarians Association, a union, and the manager of the inter-library loan program, is disdainful of the trustees’ performance. “Most of them,” he said recently, “don’t even know what we do here. One of them—he’s a lawyer—didn’t even know we had unions and seniority rules.”

Galvin thinks the trustees are under Collins’ thumb, even in the libraries’ present straits. “They’re all towing the line,” he said. “Four of them were appointed by Collins [out of 14]. Four donated to his reelection committee.”

It was actually five, as Artvoice associate editor Buck Quigley detailed last week in “Running the Public Library Like a Business.” Quinn-Carey also gave to Collins’ committee.

“Collins hates unions,” Galvin said. “He tried to bust them in the private sector and now he thinks he can get rid of 200 people.”

And the 22-year library employee is dismayed at the system’s current contraction of service. He notes that the second-floor business, science and technology department will soon be shuttered; that the humanities section on the main floor—the library’s largest collection—and the reference section will soon be closed to public access. “The materials may still be here, if somewhat reduced, but you’ll have to know just what you want,” and have to ask an employee for assistance, someone who may not be a librarian. Someone who may not be able to advise a patron on selection.

The separate children’s room will soon be closed and the section moved to newly opened-up space in what was part of the fiction area, presenting, he says, potential noise and security issues. The teen room is to be closed.

The administration and the trustees’ proposed hub system may impose more than incidental minor inconveniences, in both Buffalo and the suburbs. Pat Weissman, a desk page at the Eggertsville-Snyder branch, sat at the back of the legislature’s chamber during that committee hearing two weeks ago, listening to the presentations. “Buffalo doesn’t have a good public transportation system,” she observed. “A hub system might work in Chicago or Cleveland, but in Western New York a lot of kids and seniors will be out of luck.”

Some political observers believe Collins grossly underestimated the public pushback he could confront when he cut the libraries. Even an official in Comptroller Mark Poloncarz’s office, no center of sympathy for Collins, especially since he wants to cut Poloncarz’s staff by 36 percent, said he and his colleagues were a little surprised. Speaking on condition of anonymity, he said, “Collins didn’t know this snake could bite him, or how big and fast it is.”

Republican legislators admit they’ve been receiving a large volume of complaints from distressed and angry suburban constituents. Kevin Hardwick, who represents people in Kenmore and Tonawanda, told Artvoice he and other Republicans want to restore the funding, but the only agreement he could point to this week was the Republican decision to forego district offices, at a saving of $60,000. This scarcely rises to the level of symbolism. No one from Hardwick’s side of the aisle has questioned Collins’ calculation of the available dollars in the reserve fund balance, which is required to be five percent of the county budget. The county executive’s figures are fiercely disputed by the comptroller and the Democrats, and not supported by the county’s independent auditors.

Tuesday morning, seven of the legislature’s nine Democrats announced a budget plan that they said didn’t rely on the reserve fund, but instead used money from what they said was Collins’ excessive proposed spending including salary raises and overestimation of costs. They claim these monies will restore all $4 million to the library system.

Majority Leader Maria R. Whyte said despite attention to Republican concerns, she was uncertain if any Republican would support this approach. For that matter, two Democrats, Chair Barbara Miller-Williams and Christina Bove, hadn’t signed on by Tuesday. (Miller-Williams owes her position to Collins’ Republican allies.) Whyte expects Collins to veto it: “It’s been pretty clear he never intended to negotiate. He’d rather see you in court.”

The Democrats need eight votes to amend, and 10 to override any veto. Citizen pressure will probably be a vital element in the outcome.

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