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Libraries face 50% cut in state funding

Friday, March 14, 2003

By Patricia Lowry, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Come January, your local library will be able to lend you only half of that new bestseller you wanted to read. If you want to read the other half, well, you'll just have to buy the book.

OK, not really.

But shorter hours and a reduction in programs and services are among the cutbacks library patrons can expect if a state budget that cuts library spending in half is passed.

Along with schools and state-owned universities, medical assistance programs, parks, sewage treatment facilities and other publicly funded institutions and programs, libraries will take a hit in the 2004 Pennsylvania budget.

And for libraries, it's a disproportionately big hit.

With a 10 percent budget reduction overall, libraries will take a 50 percent reduction, compared with, say, 16 percent for the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources and 14 percent for the Department of Aging.

"I was stunned," said Herb Elish, director of Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh. He anticipates a shortfall next year of $2.4 million -- about 12 percent of its $21.5 million annual budget for the main library and branches.

"Clearly that's not something you can absorb just by getting more efficient," Elish said. "It's going to have a real impact on service."

And it comes at an especially inopportune time, with the library already cutting $1 million from its budget each year for the next 25 years to cover the debt service on a $15 million bond issue supported by Regional Asset District allocations.

The bonds are helping to pay for the first phase of the library's ambitious, $40 million, systemwide makeover that began last month with renovations to the Homewood library.

"I would expect the capital program to go forward," Elish said. "I would work very hard not to stop the progress for the future, in the hope that this is temporary and we can recover. The concern is, we get the libraries ready and they're all new and we won't be able to offer the service that we should."

Elish anticipates a 15 percent reduction in hours next year, but isn't sure whether that would mean being open fewer days or fewer hours per day.

"And obviously it would have an impact on the people here, since something approaching 70 percent of our cost is people."

Programs for children, both in libraries and in schools, also could be cut, as well as spending on books and other library materials.

In the past few years, Elish doubled the amount the library was spending on materials annually, to $3 million, on everything from bestsellers to databases to specialty collections such as science and technology, literary criticism and music.

"It's getting to meet the kind of standards you want," Elish said.

The library's $40 million annual budget comprises $15 million in RAD money, $4.8 million from the state, $200,000 from fund raising, $40,000 from the city, and assorted smaller income streams.

Elish said the library also will become more entrepreneurial by selling reprints from its large photographic library and by marketing design services to other libraries.

As for the state budget, "We're going to try to convince people it should not come to pass, but we have to be prudent and do the planning for it."

Patricia Lowry can be reached at plowry@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1590.

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