Schenectady County Public Library has a new children’s wing, new director, and big problem: money. Last month, in order to get the property tax increase closer to — but still well over — the state’s 2 percent cap, the county Legislature whacked the library’s 2013 budget by $617,000, bringing it to slightly less than $4 million. Like so many other public institutions in these hard economic times, the library is going to have to make do with less — and probably can while still maintaining an excellent system.
The county Legislature has given the Board of Trustees until May 1 to come up with a plan for dealing with the reduced funds. What changes will be made in terms of programs, personnel, books and other materials, hours and branches? What streamlining, restructuring, consolidation will be done?
These will be significant, difficult decisions, but we like what the new director, Karen Bradley, brings to the task and the way she and the board are going about it.
As program director at the library, Bradley dealt with community agencies, so she is very familiar with the community, its problems and needs. She has some ideas about how different entities, such as the city school district, could partner with the library to get grants (about the only way of getting them days) and provide programs. While she speaks passionately of the library, its programs and central role in the community, she also says that she and the board are up to meeting the fiscal challenges.
And the board of trustees is taking a welcome approach with a monthlong survey (it began Nov. 1) to get a better picture of how — and how much — residents use the library, its programs and materials; what they consider vital and want to keep or could do without. Public input usually leads to better decisions, as does good, up-to-date information. And the board will have it, not just from the survey and community forums but from a recent assessment of operations at the branches, which went so far as to break down circulation by the hour.
That’s important, because one or more of the 10 branches may well have to close. The survey and data can show how do it with the least amount of damage.
Fortunately, there is a very strong, committed Friends of the Library group that stands ready to help, perhaps with a fund-raising campaign. And the idea of a special library district should at least be explored. If Schenectady County residents greatly value their library — and, judging by their high levels of use and affection, they do — they might be willing to tax themselves to pay for it, especially if they knew their county taxes would be reduced.
But all this shouldn’t be necessary. For all the Legislature’s complaining about Medicaid and other unfunded state mandates, which it says have forced it to blow the tax cap and make these cuts, it plans to keep spending $7 million a year to make up for losses on something that is not a mandate at all: Glendale Nursing Home. Without that, it could afford to keep full funding for the library.