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Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Libraries, to cut or eliminate is the question

From the Sun

by Kathleen Haughney and Scott Wyman

TALLAHASSEE— Public library funding may get shelved under budget proposals being considered by the Legislature, potentially leading to reduced hours and the shuttering of some library branches across the state.

Florida's libraries, which rely on a mix of state and local funds to keep their doors open, would get no state money under a budget approved by the Senate last week. The House approved $17.7 million, which is $3.5 million less than this year's budget. With the state facing a $3.8 billion shortfall, both chambers have approved deep spending cuts to education, health care and other programs to balance the budget.

The library cut could mean anything from reduced library hours to facility closures, said Florida Library Association executive director Faye Roberts.

"We have had reports that reductions in state aid will translate into reduced hours and the possibilities of some branch closings," she said. "And the sad part of that is the loss of access for people who depend on libraries for Internet access to government services, or to apply for jobs, and all those services that people depend on now that the economy is down."

For the current year, the state appropriated $21.2 million for libraries, the bare amount needed for the libraries to qualify for a $9 million federal grant that pays for statewide technology projects, including the Florida Electronic Library, an online research database that is available to library patrons and the public school system.

That would likely no longer exist if the state can't meet the $21.2 million threshold to draw down the federal dollars, Roberts said.

David Bishop, spokesman for Senate President Mike Haridopolos, R-Merritt Island, said the cuts couldn't be helped. "Cuts had to be made with a focus on keeping priorities like education, health and human services, economic development as whole as possible," he said.

The hardest-hit libraries will likely be ones in small counties, which rely on state funds to draw down additional federal grants related to rural library services, Roberts said. But the big ones will also take a hit, she predicted.

State aid currently accounts for $1.5 million of the $59 million needed to operate Broward County's network of 37 libraries. State aid to the Broward library system has fallen from $1.9 million in 2009.

Because of that and declining property-tax collections due to falling home values, the Broward library system has closed all branches on Sundays – saving $2.2 million last year -- and limited programs.

County budget-writers are looking at cutting $40 million in spending next year across the board – from the Sheriff's Office to social services. County Administrator Bertha Henry said she has asked agencies to submit budget proposals that cut even deeper in case the state Legislature makes cuts like that considered for library aid.

"It's a fluid situation in Tallahassee, and we knew there would be pressures placed on us," Henry said. "Anything they do will exacerbate a hard situation. They keep on trying to solve their budget problems by creating more problems for us."

Less state aid would potentially make it more difficult for the system to reverse the Sunday closings, which have drawn criticism from library patrons. Administrators have been exploring ways to open a handful of regional libraries on Sunday without increasing staff overall.

Commissioner Kristin Jacobs, who has long been critical of the Republican-led Legislature, said lawmakers are cutting too deep and will end up harming Florida communities.

"The idea that we as a state don't need to fund libraries is diabolical because education is the great equalizer of society and libraries are a vital part of the network of ensuring access to information that people need to grow and learn," she said.

State funding for the 67-county public library system has gradually fallen over the years. In the 2000-2001 budget, the state gave $33.4 million. Last year, the Legislature also threatened to eliminate money for libraries but came up with funding in the final budget negotiations between the House and Senate.

Legislative leaders expect to begin the process of aligning the House and Senate budgets this week, which will include the library funding issue. or 850-224-6214.,0,4984763.story

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