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Libraries Stay Open, but Funding Cuts Reduce Hours, Services

By Joyce Kryszak

Buffalo, NY – Erie County library patrons breathed a sigh of relief when the red budget was defeated. And even as the budget crisis rears its ugly head again, officials say funding for the libraries is secure, and they will stay open.

But it turns out that at some branches --even under the green budget funding - not nearly as many hours as before.

If you stop by the Kenilworth Library in Tonawanda to pick up a book on a Tuesday evening, you'll be disappointed - it's closed. Ditto for the Brighton Branch, the Greenhaven Branch and the Parkside Village Branch. But, you're in luck. The Kenmore branch is open - but, hurry.

"I'm sorry, but we're closing now. It's nine o'clock..."

Library branch manager Nancy Mueller has good reason to be a bit strict about closing time. She and the other librarians are exhausted. The hours have been cut in half at this branch. And all the part time help let go.

"We're just able to staff the desk and that doesn't give any of time to be in the back to do our quote, unquote official librarian duties, or clerical duties, so needless to say everything is backed up," said Mueller. "I think it's worse than we anticipated, as far as the actual working of it. It's harder, and we're more exhausted."

The mess got this bad in just the few weeks since the budget approved in December. The good news is that, because of a special library designation, funding was secured once tax bills went out. The bad news? The so-called green budget still called for $4.2 million in library cuts, ranging between about twenty to thirty percent for systems across the county. The larger systems -- Tonawanda, Amherst, and Cheektowaga -- took the biggest hit. Tonawanda Library Director Jeffrey Mahaney says he did what he had to.

"I laid off 58 people in December. You keep your full-time staff because they're the people who know everything - they can do everything, including cleaning the floors and shelving the books," said Mahaney."

To meet the state law for minimum service, hours and days at the five Tonawanda branches were staggered. Mahaney admits the result is utter chaos.

"I mean I've got staff to five different buildings. If this building is closed, staff will go to other buildings," said Mahaney. "The problem is this building is so far behind with shelving and send lists, with all the things we have to do, when we send somebody out it just keeps building here. The other libraries are more able -they're not as busy as this place."

The Kenmore library now has stanchions to keep the long lines at bay. But on Saturdays, librarians say the stanchions are fairly useless, with the lines trailing all the way down the stairs into the lobby below. That's because this branch is now the only one open in Tonawanda on Saturdays. And none are open on Sunday. In fact, there are only three open on Sundays in the whole county.

And what are the people saying who use the libraries? Well, over at the Brighton library one afternoon, Bob Michalski wasn't very happy.

"I'm off on Wednesday and on Sunday, and on Sunday I can't use the library when I have time to, and I's imagine other people do too," said Michalski. "The lines are longer, the parking lots are full, the parking lots get clogged, people park illegally - one problem leads to another problem. It was much better before."

No one seems to disagree with that. Several libraries users at the various branches we visited say this is a far different library world than the one they knew. But most, like senior citizen Patricia Dunn, are just grateful there's still a world of books to come to.

"Well, we want to keep them, so if they have to close down little, we'll just keep coming to the days they still have open," said Dunn. "We don't want to lose them completely."

The libraries are open -- but in systems like Tonawanda, many of the extras -- and even some of the basics -- are gone. Kenmore branch manager Nancy Mueller explains.

"We have no programming at all, including story hour, toddler time. We had an adult book club, we had a journaling group, we can't do those anymore. We just don't have the time to devote to planning those programs," said Mueller. "There are certain services that are hurting, those extra steps we take for people, extra reference work, or helping with the computers, or going to the shelf and helping them find it -- we just don't have the time to do that anymore."

Still, patrons for the most part are making due with what they have. Kathy George picks her grand daughter up from pre-school everyday and takes her to the library. George says they'll go wherever they have to to find Lara's favorites.

"If you want to get to library, if you can't get to Brighton, you can get to Greenhaven. If you can't get to Greenhaven, you can go over to Delaware," said George. Because, if we don't find one open, we go to another one."

George and others also say they now realize a long-rejected consolidation plan is probably inevitable. Sadly, this new found flexibility may be too late. Officials say the county may no longer have the millions promised too help municipalities build new, consolidated libraries. Buffalo and Erie County Library Director Michael Mahaney says timing is everything.

"We knew there was going to come a time when the resources to support, shall we say, the old, over branched library system that we have, we're not going to be able. So, they were projecting that we needed to move forward sooner than we have" said Mahaney. "And the board will continue to look for opportunities to consolidate libraries where it makes sense. Unfortunately, the resources aren't there. In some respects it's between the rock and a hard place."

That leaves a giant question mark hanging over 2006. But, for now, libraries will continue to stretch the resources they have and, if they have to, make more cut backs. Librarians say they'll also be recruiting some knowledgeable volunteers to help put books back on the shelves, where readers can find them.