The Buffalo and Erie County Public Library neither created nor contributed to the fiscal crisis that confronts Erie County. On the contrary, the Library, its staff and its many patrons are innocent bystanders. Never has the Library run a deficit, overestimated its revenue or outspent its income. Arguably, the Library returns more per tax dollar received than any other arm of County government and continues to accomplish more with less year after year.
Ironically, the Library predicted the current crisis seven years ago and tried to convince elected leaders and the community-at-large that a 52-library system is no longer viable as Erie County 's population and tax base decline. A system of fewer, better libraries was the hope the plan. That plan was realistic and rational, but there were precious few who would entertain such a notion then.
Now, as we approach 2006, there will be fewer libraries, but they will consist of the best of what we had, not the best we might have created.
Nevertheless, there is nothing to gain from hindsight and second-guessing. Where we are going is more important than where we have been.
With at least $7 million less to operate in 2006 than the Library had in 2004, our decision is how to do the most with what we have. Rather than whine and point fingers, the Library has shouldered this burden and accepted this challenge.
We know there's no extra money. Given that inescapable fact, we've prepared a plan. It is far from perfect, and it inflicts more pain than our public and our conscientious staff deserve, but our choices are few.
We must close libraries. We must strip our operation to the bone. We must send a generation of dedicated, talented staff to far destinations, while Erie County becomes poorer as they depart.
Ask any member of the Board or staff if they want this, and they'll glare at you in disbelief or outrage. But what are the alternatives?
No matter how anyone approaches it, $21.7 million is not enough to deliver even a facsimile of the service the Library delivers today far below the record-breaking service we delivered only last year. Every library that survives this unfortunate process must do much more with far less next year.
As we enumerate these plans and suggestions, we must remind the community that the B&ECPL Board of Trustees has no authority to close even one library outside the City of Buffalo . The B&ECPL Board provides operating revenue to those city, town, village and free association libraries in an annual contractual agreement. The System's Board might suggest the optimal way to allocate those financial resources, but it remains the decision of local officials as to how they operate their libraries with the dollars they receive, subject to System policies and the specific terms of the agreement.
When all is said and done, we cannot ignore the bottom line: $21.7 million. That amount is not enough even with reduced hours and new staffing strategies to sustain more than two-thirds of today's library system. A 2006 budget of $21.7 million cannot restore or maintain every library in Erie County , but with economies and strategies the number of potential closings has been confined to 16. Many more might have closed.
Last winter, when County parks, DMV offices and other County agencies were devastated by budget cuts, the Library managed to sustain service at all 52 locations, despite an 11% budget cut. Nine months later, the Library has no room left to maneuver. There is no miracle cure for Erie County 's fiscal ailments. Anyone expecting a quick fix is doomed to disappointment.
With foresight, the Library has prepared for the inevitable. We don't relish what we must do, but we are prepared to do it.