Council and Hayden clash over library closings, priorities

May 24, 2001|By Allison Klein | Allison Klein,SUN STAFF

Enoch Pratt Free Library Director Carla D. Hayden was grilled yesterday by Baltimore City Council members about her plans to close five branches this summer, and about the library's money-losing gift shop.

At a Budget and Appropriations Committee hearing, a sometimes defensive Hayden said branches are closing because of dwindling funds, and the gift shop is run with money from the board of trustees, not from the city.

Hayden said the mayor's proposed library budget for next fiscal year, $12.3 million, is almost $2 million less than Enoch Pratt requested and almost $1 million less than the library received from the city last year.

"I would like to have a budget to make our library system adequate, more than adequate," Hayden said. "But we are limping along, and we continue to give inadequate service."

Enoch Pratt slashed its book budget 14 percent this year, and most of the 26 branches are open for 37 hours a week.

Several council members questioned the wisdom of closing libraries in a city where half of schools offer library service and test scores show that many students read far below grade level.

"The mayor of Philadelphia was here a few weeks ago and he said, `One of the worst things you can do is close libraries because they're safe havens for children,'" said Catherine E. Pugh, a council member from West Baltimore. "We don't want to devastate our communities to the point where kids have nowhere to go and end up hanging out on the street corner."

Hayden said she agreed.

She announced in March a list of 11 libraries that are candidates for closure. The five to be shuttered will be identified after a meeting June 13 of Pratt's board of directors.

Gordon Krabbe, director of Pratt's administrative services, said administrators "have a pretty good idea" which five will be closed, but he would not name them. Once announced, the decision will be final and there will be no appeals process, Hayden said.

The library director said she is not considering closing the gift shop in the central library downtown because it "makes us competitive with bookstores."

According to figures from a city audit, the shop had a net loss of $53,000 during fiscal year 1999-2000.

The operating cost of not closing five branches is an estimated $1.1 million a year.

Hayden said the trustees have a $24 million endowment. They do not want to spend endowment money on operating costs, such as electric bills and staff salaries, which should be paid for with public funds, she said.

Councilman Edward L. Reisinger of Southwest Baltimore asked what was "the purpose of having $24 million just sitting there?"

"We are lucky to have an endowment at all," said Hayden, raising her voice. "You are looking at damaging the future of fund raising if you spend it."

Reisinger shot back: "If I have money in the bank and my children need clothes or shoes, I take it out."

About a half-dozen library supporters who were watching the hearing clapped and cheered.

Some library activists believe Hayden has wanted to close smaller, older library branches for years, and is using the city's financial woes as an excuse to do it. She has denied that.

The City Council is scheduled to cast a final budget vote next month.

Enoch Pratt's current total budget is $27 million, which includes city, state and private funds. If the Pratt's budget continues to diminish in coming years, more branches will close, Krabbe said.

Nicholas C. D'Adamo Jr., a Southeast Baltimore council member who is chairman of the budget committee, said the city's budget is focused on crime prevention, and the council needs to decide which is a better tool: "A police officer with a gun or a library with a book."

Branches at risk

Five of these 11 libraries will close for good this summer. The Enoch Pratt Free Library board of directors will approve the final decision June 13.

Canton, 1030 S. Ellwood Ave.

Clifton, 2001 N. Wolfe St.

Dundalk, 912 Dundalk Ave.

Fells Point, 606 S. Ann St.

Forest Park, 3023 Garrison Blvd.

Gardenville, 5427 Belair Road

Govans, 5714 Bellona Ave.

Highlandtown, 3323 Eastern Ave.

Hollins-Payson, 31 S. Payson St.

Pimlico, 5001 Park Heights Ave.

Washington Village, 856 Washington Blvd.

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