Losing my hair and losing my mind in Western New York

Friday, August 05, 2005

We Told You So!

Just when I think that things are about to get better around here, it goes from bad to worse.

As many of you know, Erie County is facing a severe budget crisis. If that wasn't bad enough, the Erie County Public Library System is also having to deal with budgetary issues. This is partly due to the financial woes that Erie County is going through, and partly their own fault.

About 7 years ago the Library system's then director Daniel L. Walters hired financial firm Aaron Cohen Associates, Ltd. to create a financial study on the library's current setup and to propose any necessary changes. The study revealed a bloated dinosaur that was on the verge of collapse from it's own weight. The Buffalo and Erie County Library system has more branches per capita than nearly other municipal library system in the United States. Too many branches. Simply put, the study concluded that within 5-10 years the Library system will no longer be able to financially support the current setup without an exceptionally large and highly unlikely infusion of cash from local government.

With that in mind, Aaron Cohen Associates, Ltd. proposed a dramatic and sweeping reform plan that would have closed many of the smaller, older and little used branches in favor of a library 'hub' system. This hub system, informally known as “The Cohen Plan” would have meant that several new Library buildings would be built at strategic locations around Erie County based on usage statistics from the current libraries. That is to say, towns and neighborhoods that used their current libraries heavily would be far more likely to get a hub nearby than unused libraries. This makes sense. If an area shows that they care little about the presence of a library by not using it, there isn't any reason to waste money giving them a new one right nearby. The Buffalo area has an excellent roads and Public Transportation infrastructure, Those that aren't near libraries could simply drive or take public transportation to the library to use it.

These new Hub Libraries would be bright, clean, modern buildings with full handicapped access. They would be able to hold far larger collections than the smaller libraries are now able to contain and would be able to support a full range of modern conveniences and comforts, along with many more services. All of this, while costing quite a bit to setup, would more than pay for itself 5, 10, 15, 25 years down the road as the costs for maintenance, upkeep and further modernization would be significantly lower than trying to keep the old dinosaur system running.

Now keep in mind, this was 7 years ago. Erie county was doing quite well at the time, and the pressure to make major changes was not there. Most people thought that Erie County was doing alright, all things considered. The Internet Bubble was still in full swing. Even our area, despite generally missing most of the big benefits of that market bubble, was doing ok. So it's not terribly surprising that when the plan was put out for public consideration and hearings, that many people in the area, particularly those in the city, reacted with anger and vehemence at the idea of “taking away their libraries”

Of course, none of those who were speaking out against the plan actually read it, or paid any attention to the implications of leaving the system as it stands. To be honest, most of the Librarians weren't too keen on the idea either. Not that it was a bad plan, it was an excellent plan and one we should have implemented. But the fear of losing their jobs (we would have had to let go of a percentage of the library staff as well) and just normal human entropy kept the librarians who were charged with presenting the plan from putting any kind of effective spin on it. The only ones truly suporting and pushing it was then Library Director Dan Walters, and the Board of trustees. Of course, as we all know the plan went down in flames, amid the screaming and shouting of the ignorant and ill-informed.

Fast forward 7 years later. Erie county is in the middle of a budget crisis of epic proportions. Dan Walters has long since quit in disgust at the backward and irresponsible behavior of the local citizens and government. He is now heading up an upscale and revitalized library system in Washington State. Our current Library Director, Michael Mahaney, is a politically connected government insider who is beholden to a small cadre of local politicans (Al Debenedetti in particular). Despite his connections, money to support our aging dinosaur of a library system has nearly run out.

So now are we going to do now? Yep, you got it. CLOSE LIBRARIES. Only now, instead of replacing the libraries with new modern facilities, we will simply be closing buildings and laying off a large percentage of staff. Once again, Liberal politics and short-sighted political gamesmanship has trumped intelligent thought and good planning.

Who get's the shaft? Hardworking, harried and underpaid Librarians and ordinary folks like you and me. If anyone thinks that the politically connected involved here will pay any kind of price, they would be sadly mistaken. I would expect our current library director to either keep his post, or find a nice cushy spot somewhere else in local government. Fortunately, many of the local County politicians involved will likely be gone. Having either been voted out of office, or having quit, knowing they have no chance to win an election.

At least one politician, Joel Giambra, is talking about resurrecting the Cohen Plan. He wants to fund the contruction of new facilities using Tobacco Settlement monies. Of course, there are many questions about this idea, including the legality of it, and wether there is actually any money left in that fund. But at least it's a start, and shows that there still can be ways to save the library system, if we are willing to listen to good ideas.

My ideas for saving our library system are as follows:

  1. The Cohen plan, or some close derivative of it, needs to be the starting point. Moving our library system from an old outdated model reliant on small community libraries to a new updated model using larger 'hub' style branches with better, larger collections and improved ammenities. This should be combined with the most modern systems of book distribution. This way no one branch is lacking for anything, as it can always get what it needs from other branches.

  2. Increasing taxes to try and fund these branches cannot be an option. Our area is already taxed well beyond the point of diminishing returns, as can be seen by the continued flight of the well educated and young from our area.

  3. Honestly, Public hearings should not be held on this. There are still many many people in the area that do not understand the seriousness of the situation that the library system is in. It is likely that there will be another round of protests accompanying any public hearings, turning what should be a serious discussion about the financial solvency of the library system into a 3 ring circus.

In the days since I started writing on this subject, Erie County and the Library's board of Directors have begun moving forward with an attempt to rescue the library system from it's financial woes. While it would appear that they too wish to return to the wisdom of the Cohen Plan, they have once again embarked on the foolish venture of having public hearings. As expected, these hearings have become flash points around which the ignorant and politically motivated are gathering and havoc has ensued.

I would strongly advise the Library Board of Directors to reconsider having public hearings and involving local politicians. The Library board needs to make it's decision to follow the Cohen Plan outside of local political concerns. If area history teaches us anything, it's that allowing politics to take precedence in financal matters is a mistake that none of us can afford to make.


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