Pratt cuts sought by Schmoke Proposal would close one-third of branches, concentrate resources

'Let's reinvent the Pratt'

Library officials wait to speak with mayor

advocates infuriated

April 30, 1996|By JoAnna Daemmrich and Marcia Myers | JoAnna Daemmrich and Marcia Myers,SUN STAFF

In what would be the most far-reaching overhaul ever of the Enoch Pratt Free Library, Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke is proposing closing about a third of its 28 neighborhood branches and concentrating dwindling resources in the rest and the central library.

The time has come to reinvent the 110-year-old Pratt, Mr. Schmoke said, even if he succeeds in getting an income tax increase and can spare the library from deep budget cuts.

His proposal to eventually close 10 branches, by far the biggest batch ever targeted, comes amid an outpouring of support for the cherished library system after earlier budget threats to it and other cultural institutions.

"I think ideas like this have to be considered," Mr. Schmoke said. "A few of our branches are really limping along, and it might make more sense to have three really well-run branches in each council district and then make the central library a real gem."

Baltimore has the most extensive network of neighborhood libraries in Maryland. But too many lean budget years and the migration of the middle class to the suburbs have left a number of branches with too little money, too few new books and too few new readers.

By shutting about a third of its branches, Mr. Schmoke said, the Pratt could put its resources into the central library downtown, once again keeping it open seven days a week, as well as into three well-stocked libraries in each of the six council districts.

His idea, which is not part of the budget for the coming fiscal year, would have to be approved by the library trustees.

The notion of such a wide-scale reorganization, however, caught Pratt administrators off guard and infuriated library advocates.

"I am implacably opposed to it and feel it would make a sham of the pretense of public library service to the citizens of Baltimore," said David Yaffe of the Friends of the Pratt Library. "It might as well be the Cincinnati Public Library."

Both he and Jane Shipley of the League of Library Voters said they believed that the mayor's proposed tax increase would preclude the need for dramatic cuts in library branches.

"I thought we were going to be OK. This just astonishes me," Ms. Shipley said. "I realize the mayor holds the purse strings, but it's not his position to make library policy."

The league has organized a 24-hour reading marathon, scheduled to begin at 8 a.m. tomorrow, as a show of support for the library system in the wake of earlier proposed budget cuts.

At the beginning of preparing the budget, Mr. Schmoke said declining revenues from property and income taxes had left the financially strapped city with little choice but to make severe cuts in library, museum, recreation and other services. His initial spending plan had cuts that stunned library administrators.

The Pratt had put together a $21.3 million budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1. Mr. Schmoke's proposal calls for giving the Pratt $19.7 million -- if he is successful in raising the income tax. Otherwise, the budget would be pared by another $1.5 million.

In pitching the tax increase to community leaders and the City Council, the mayor has said it will allow him to preserve services important to maintaining a good quality of life in Baltimore. He wants to raise the city's piggyback tax -- calculated as a percentage of the state income tax -- from 50 percent to 55 percent. The increase requires the City Council's approval.

The library has been a favorite rallying point in the city's yearly budget debates. The mayor frequently turns to the Pratt to illustrate how widespread cuts will be, and library supporters mount vigorous campaigns to fend off those cuts. This year was no exception.

"He wants to change the tone of the discussion," said Clinton R. Coleman, the mayor's spokesman. "Instead of a threat of closing libraries, let's reinvent the Pratt, basically."

Pratt administrators declined to respond specifically to Mr. Schmoke's ideas, which he discussed with community leaders in a series of budget briefings at the end of last week. Mr. Schmoke has sent a letter detailing his suggestions to the Pratt trustees, said Mr. Coleman.

"We don't know the context, whether this is a trial balloon or a seriously thought-out plan," said Pratt spokeswoman Averil J. Kadis. "So far, he hasn't shared it with us. When he does, I'm sure we'll be happy to talk with him."

The loss of 10 branches would be the largest such cut in the library's history, she said. "The number 28 doesn't have a magic quality to it. We've gone up and down from the number from time to time, but I don't think we've ever gone much below it."

Many of the library's ardent supporters called the mayor's idea "devastating," saying the neighborhood branches are popular with children who do their homework there, elderly who cannot easily get around and poor people who rely on public transportation.

But Mr. Schmoke drew some support among civic leaders when he broached the proposed overhaul at a Saturday budget briefing.

Baltimore has far more neighborhood branches than any other jurisdiction in Maryland, even though its population has declined to the point where it no longer is the largest, Mr. Schmoke pointed out. In contrast to Baltimore's 28 branches, Prince George's and Montgomery counties each have 21 and Baltimore County has 15.

"It sounds like a good idea to consolidate," said Stuart Brooks of Guilford. "I like the idea."

Sarah McClintock, a Mount Washington resident who came to the mayor's briefing Saturday morning sporting a handmade T-shirt that urged him to save the parks and libraries, said she was willing to consider the idea. But Carol Rosenberg, also of Mount Washington, was not, saying central libraries would be too far for children to walk to.

Pub Date: 4/30/96

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