Budget cutters feel your pain

Urban Chronicle

Downsizing: City officials say they aren't deaf to the cries of protest over tough decisions on ways to save money, including closing libraries.

Urban Chronicle

May 03, 2001|By Eric Siegel | Eric Siegel,SUN STAFF

THE ADAGE used to be that you couldn't fight City Hall. Now, it sometimes seems as if it's City Hall that can't win.

Suggest cutting employees and services to bring costs in line with revenue, and people complain that you're destroying fragile lives and neighborhoods. Try to raise taxes to preserve jobs and the things government can do, and you face criticism that you're not trimming enough.

The dynamics of the new maxim are painfully on display in the discussion over library closings.

Faced with diminishing funds, the Enoch Pratt Free Library has identified 11 older, underused neighborhood branches as candidates for closure and said it will shutter five this summer as it pursues a strategy that envisions four regional libraries to supplement and supplant local ones.

Rather than being praised for downsizing and reinventing government, the administration of Mayor Martin O'Malley and library officials are castigated as callously disregarding the needs of children and communities.

Officials are hardly deaf to the criticism.

"We know no one wants less of anything," Pratt Director Carla D. Hayden acknowledged at a recent community forum. "None of us joined this system to close libraries."

But, she added, "It's time for the Pratt library to meet the need for real change."

Of all the detailed statistics on the branches amassed by the library -- on repair costs, attendance, and materials checked out and used in the libraries -- some simple figures make the most persuasive case for closings.

First, the Pratt has 28 branches to serve the city's 651,154 residents, compared with the 27 it had 30 years ago when the city's population was 905,787.

In addition, the library estimates that it would cost another $5 million a year -- or about a 20 percent increase in the library's budget -- to keep all the branches open for more than their current five-day-a-week, eight-hour-a-day schedule.

But which libraries to close?

The four public hearings on the closings underscored the glaring needs of many neighborhoods: public schools without libraries, communities with vacated stores and houses.

Fact is, neighborhoods are not created equal, any more than library branches are.

There can be little doubt that the trendy waterfront neighborhoods of Canton and Fells Point, whose branches are among the Endangered Eleven, will continue to thrive, with or without their public libraries. In fact, in areas where warehouses and factories have been converted into apartments and retail centers, it is likely the buildings would be recycled.

The same cannot be said of, say, Pimlico and Park Heights, Northwest communities struggling with drug traffic, disinvestment and declining population.

At a public hearing last month, residents and community leaders pointed out that the school board voted in March to close two schools in the area this summer -- Park Heights and Malcolm X elementaries -- and that the area is pockmarked with boarded houses and two shuttered supermarkets.

"A ghost town" is what one resident said the area would look like if the library were to close its doors.

The Rev. T. Gregory Knepp, pastor of St. John's Evangelical Lutheran Church in Pimlico, said he came away from the hearing "very frustrated."

"You can't underestimate the psychological effect this has," he said. "The community is beginning to feel rather dumped upon."

To Knepp, there is cruel irony in the fact that congregants of his church and the Episcopal Church of the Holy Nativity, another Pimlico house of worship, are preparing to gather Sunday to celebrate a $750,000 state bond for the churches' development corporation to build a Youth Arts & Community Center at Pimlico Road and Boarman Avenue -- while there is talk of closing the library eight blocks away.

Del. Howard P. Rawlings, who represents Northwest Baltimore and co-sponsored the bond bill, says consideration should be given to the impact of closings on neighborhoods. But he's not about to publicly advocate for one library over another. He says he is willing to put his faith in the judgment of Hayden and the library board, who are scheduled to announce their decision on closings at a June 13 meeting.

"I understand the pain that a decision like that might cause," said Rawlings, who as chairman of the House appropriations committee knows about budgets and spending. "But it's a decision that has to be made."

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