Deep cuts proposed for Pratt library Schmoke's proposal could cause layoffs, branches to close

'The worst fiscal situation'

Mayor's budget plan offers $13.2 million, a cut of $3.5 million

March 26, 1996|By Marcia Myers | Marcia Myers,SUN STAFF Sun staff writer Robert Guy Matthews contributed to this article.

Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke has proposed cutbacks so severe to the Enoch Pratt Free Library that the 110-year-old institution could be forced to close half its branches and lay off as many as 60 full-time employees.

The proposal -- made as the city prepares its spending plan for the coming fiscal year -- reportedly stunned library administrators and advocates, prompting a series of negotiations to reduce the magnitude of the cuts.

Mr. Schmoke recently told library officials that the city wants to earmark $13.2 million for the Pratt system -- $3.5 million less than the library receives this year, and about 25 percent below what officials say it needs next year.

"I was in shock," one official said of the proposal. "This is, I would say, the worst fiscal situation the library has faced in its history. Of course, I don't know what went on in the Depression."

Baltimore, like many of the nation's cities, faces tough economic times. Last month, city Budget Director Edward J. Gallagher told the heads of city agencies that declining property and income tax collections as well as elimination of the beverage container tax were making 1997 appear bleak.

He said there had been no change in projections that revenues for the city's principal operating fund would decline by nearly $6 million. "If anything, [the revenue outlook] has deteriorated," he said in a memo.

Pratt supporters note that the library already is hampered by a 50 percent drop in purchasing power between 1971 and 1991.

"That library has been heroically carrying on with everybody doing the work of two people," said David Yaffe, a Friends of the Pratt Library board member. "To decrease library service further would be completely unconscionable.

"I can't imagine that the citizens of Baltimore would sit by and tolerate a budget so skimpy and crippling."

Council President Lawrence A. Bell III, who said last night he was unaware of the extent of the proposed cuts, said he would oppose them. "It flies in the face of our theme -- Baltimore, The City That Reads," he said. "If we are going to make significant cuts, we should change our theme."

Even if the negotiations alter the proposed cuts, it is likely that the library will be forced to close some of its small branches, officials said. Library officials yesterday wouldn't say which branches could close.

Although the city typically makes low-ball offers during budget negotiations, the gap this year between the library's request and the city's position was described as unusually wide.

In the past, the difference typically has been in the neighborhood of $1.5 million -- this year's gap is more than twice that amount.

The budget will cover the fiscal year that begins July 1.

"I can't remember the library receiving less," said the official. "I'm not super-optimistic about where we're headed based on the large gap in the numbers."

Carla D. Hayden, library director, declined to comment. A spokeswoman for the library was tight-lipped about the city's offer yesterday.

"There is no response at this point, because there is no final budget," said spokeswoman Averil J. Kadis. "This is just one of several possible scenarios."

Asked whether library officials were concerned, she said: "There's always concern at budget time."

A spokesman for the mayor yesterday soft-pedaled the proposal as just a "typical budget exercise."

"Every year at about this time you hear the dire predictions of doom and gloom," said Clinton R. Coleman. "What is new perhaps this year is that the city's agencies are being told to expect deeper cuts than usual. But no final decisions have been made on anyone's budget."

Pratt's budget battle comes as the library has received some flattering national attention.

Widely praised for her work since coming to the library two years ago, Pratt director Hayden in January was named "Librarian of the Year" by the Library Journal. She was recognized for revitalizing neighborhood branches, streamlining the book-ordering process and bringing more computer services to the library.

The Library Journal, the nation's premier publication for library news, described Pratt as "a new model for libraries in old Eastern cities."

In the past, as the city pared the library budgets, the Pratt system reduced hours and closed on some days. The public responded unfavorably and officials said the steps saved little money and only produced confusion among library patrons.

Pub Date: 3/26/96

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