City asks details about Pratt fund Endowment may be able to better help libraries.

December 23, 1991|By Michael A. Fletcher | Michael A. Fletcher,Evening Sun Staff

In its search for money to operate the Enoch Pratt Free Library system, the Schmoke administration is looking toward the library's $10 million endowment, which falls under the exclusive control of the Pratt's board of trustees.

The endowment, which has been raised through gifts from individuals and grants from philanthropic groups, now funds projects and purchases at the sole direction of the board. The money is used for a variety of purposes, including buying books, renovations at library branches and employee training.

Administration budget officials have asked board members to provide details about the endowment, including restrictions on the use of the money. City officials are looking for money to defray the operating costs of the Pratt system, which has been squeezed by a series of budget cuts.

"We are just making an inquiry as to whether there may be a possibility of some of the endowment being used to aid the entire library system," said William R. Brown Jr., the city's finance director. "We simply asked the question."

Last month, Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke ordered that the library's $16.5 million budget be cut by $1.3 million. It was the latest in a series of cuts at the library and it prompted plans to close eight branches, although efforts are now under way to keep them open with substantial private support. In all, the Pratt runs the central library and 28 library branches throughout Baltimore.

Asked whether tapping the endowment money was an option he knew about when he ordered the cuts, Schmoke said: "I was not aware of how the endowment funds could be used. . . . Certainly, the trustees never offered it."

Two trustees said the money is not available because it would be unwise to use it for the operating budget. They added that some of the money in the endowment is restricted and can be spent only on certain items. It is unclear whether the mayor will press his case over the objections of the board, which is self-perpetuating and independent of City Hall.

"We spend every cent of our income as it is," said James A. Ulmer 3rd, head of the Pratt board.

George A. Roche, treasurer of the 15-member library board, said the trustees plan to spend $692,000 this year on projects that contribute to the quality of the library system. Almost one-third of the money is spent on books and materials. Other funds go to sending library staff to training conferences, contributing to renovations and providing services such as data bases to library patrons, Roche said.

"These are trustee funds in control of the trustees," Roche said, adding that the board could not spend more money without dipping into the endowment's principal. And "that doesn't sound very prudent," Roche said.

But with the city in the throes of a budget crisis, Schmoke and city budget officials are wondering whether some of the endowment should be freed to pay the library system's general expenses.

Moreover, the officials said, the city manages a fund that includes the money Enoch Pratt left to the city more than 100 years ago to run the library system. The fund contains about $2 million and it generated about $176,000 in interest which was earmarked for the library system this year, city budget officials said.

They point out that the library's endowment is five times greater and returns a much smaller proportion of money to the Pratt. But library officials say they are conservative in investing, limiting their investment income from the endowment.

Library trustees said they are responsive to the city's fiscal woes. For one, the trustees are "increasing our spending limits," Roche said. Also, he said, the board is actively attempting to develop partnerships for the library branches that were slated to be closed.

"We are very, very committed to making the branch partnerships work," Ulmer said. "And we are committed to do what we can" to support the library system.

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