Fearing looming crisis, library system makes public appeal for budget help

'Save Our System,' library chief asks

March 10, 2011|By Andrea F. Siegel, The Baltimore Sun

Facing the prospect of more cutbacks in library hours and other declines, Anne Arundel County Public Library administrator Hampton "Skip" Auld is taking a page from other services clamoring for scarce county dollars.

Auld is turning to the community for support, seeking to energize library patrons in much the same way that public schools have turned parents into lobbyists.

He is hoping that a public outcry will pressure elected officials to keep reductions in the library budget well below the 10 percent that County Executive John R. Leopold has asked of each agency. In addition to town hall meetings this month, a petition drive is under way and there is a renewed quest to boost private fundraising.

The cuts to the 15-branch system would follow budget cuts of 16 percent over four years, a larger hit than many county agencies have taken and which have taken a toll on hours, materials and services that is blamed for a projected 14 percent drop in circulation.

"We are finding it extremely difficult to fulfill our mission," Auld said.

But county officials are up against a projected budget deficit for the 2010-2012 fiscal year of about $30 million — more if 12 furlough days are not included.

"There are lots of competing priorities, and the goal is to try to be equitable in reductions that are being made," said Dave Abrams, spokesman for Leopold. Each agency was asked to show a 10 percent cut, though final figures may vary from that.

Auld said a 10 percent cut would force reductions in opening hours, cuts to staff and children's programs and probably shutting the 10 community branches on Fridays. Those are already closed on Sundays, except for the Maryland City at Russett branch, which receives outside funding.

"Those libraries are only open 44 hours a week now," he said.

A 4 percent cut would preserve library hours that accommodate residents' varied schedules, he said.

Auld, who came to the job in November, planned a series of three 7 p.m. "Save Our System" public forums. The first was at the West County branch, the next is Thursday at the Annapolis area branch, and the final one is March 24 at the North County library. He is hoping to rally users.

An online petition drive to save library services was started by Tereza Belyna, 33, of Annapolis, whose family always has materials checked out. Since he was three weeks old, her 18-month-old son, Vladimir, has been a regular at Babies in Bloom. Belyna takes him to the story-and-song program at four branches so that they can attend one a week.

"He sings along a little bit, he does the clapping —- he does whatever the song calls for him to do," she said. He finishes familiar rhymes, recognizes books and enjoys a setting that will help prepare him for school. Belyna fears that cuts will strain educational services for all ages.

At any given time, she's checked out more material than the family could keep buying: novels for herself, recorded books for her husband, Ivan, for his commute to work, and 10 to 15 books for Vladimir.

Joey Bowker, 43, of Crofton, said his family uses libraries for everything from the children's homework to getting a DVD for their Friday night family movie night.

He said public libraries and education were his ticket out of childhood poverty. Shriveled hours will hurt lower-income people who can't reach the big libraries if community branches lose hours, he said.

Past recent cuts that resulted in fewer library hours, programs and materials for patrons led to a stunning plummet in library visitors — down 106,000 from July 2009 to July 2010, with an estimated two-year drop of 143,000 by this July. Fines are also down.

An estimated 2.8 million patrons will visit county libraries in 2011. Projections for the same period indicate that circulation will have tumbled by about 670,000 items. Online hits, projected to more than double to 470,000,000, are likely to keep growing.

With an earlier cut from $3 million to $2 million for materials, tattered books have not been replaced in more than a year. That has hit children's items hard because "parents don't want to take home Dr. Seuss books that are slobbered on," Auld said. Magazine subscriptions were slashed by half. The wait for popular items has mushroomed to a few months, and exasperated patrons give up on reservations. There's an inability to keep current in books, DVDs, music and electronic books.

The library was a late bloomer in starting an outside financial support group. Its foundation, started in 2006, raised about $136,000 in the past two years, but more aggressive efforts are being planned.

The library's operating budget, which includes grants, state and federal funds, slipped from $19.7 million in fiscal 2007 to $17 million in the current fiscal year. The lion's share, which comes from the county, dropped to about $12 million this year.

andrea.siegel@baltsun.com

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