Carnegie Library funding approved by big margin

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Put a win in the books -- for the books.

By a margin of more than two to one, Pittsburgh voters Tuesday approved a binding referendum to add 0.25 mills to the tax on all real estate in the city, and steer the proceeds to the fiscally challenged Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh. The levy could bring more than $3 million a year to the library system for operations and maintenance.

"It's a resounding library victory!" shouted Pittsburgh Councilman Patrick Dowd, a library board member, to around 100 supporters of the referendum who gathered at the Oakland branch Tuesday evening. "The branches of the Carnegie Library will stay open, and we will continue to provide neighborhood-based services throughout this fair city."

"The [library] board can move forward with the confidence that we have a sustainable funding source that will enable us to have options on what we provide, when we provide it, and how we provide it to the community," said Lou Testoni, the library board's chairman. The library will start a community process meant to identify potential new services or expanded hours, he said.

Pittsburgh's property tax rate is now 10.8 mills, and after council codifies the results of the referendum, the library add-on will push that to 11.05 mills, starting next year. That means that the owner of a house assessed at $100,000 will pay $1,105, rather than $1,080.

Though no organized opposition emerged, the proposal drew fire from some, notably online and in letters to newspapers.

"I don't think they need as much money as they say," said Rich Ekstrom, 67, a business consultant from Shadyside who has read audits of the library system. "With our economic situation in Pittsburgh -- we're losing population -- I think another tax is the last thing we need."

The libraries should instead shift toward e-books, sell books and enter into naming rights deals, he said.

Mr. Testoni said the measure should bring around $3.2 million a year to the libraries. He said that doesn't mean the library will abandon other prongs of its financial strategy, including efforts to get more funding from the Regional Asset District, corporations and individual donors.

At the end of 2010, the Carnegie Library had $3.4 million in cash available, or enough to operate for 1.5 months -- considered a thin margin. The system in its request to the RAD board said it faced potential deficits in 2012 and beyond. Its budget for this year is $27.3 million, and for next year $27.8 million. Around two-thirds of its budget comes from RAD.

In 2009, the Carnegie Library administration decided that branches in Beechview, Hazelwood, Lawrenceville and West End should be closed, Carrick and Knoxville merged, and Mount Washington moved. Administrators said declining population, cuts in public funding, inflation and the recession necessitated the moves.

Stopgap funding from the city and state forestalled the moves. The referendum drive sprang from that crisis.

The vote followed a sophisticated campaign. The library system's backers gathered more than 10,000 signatures in support of the referendum, which is more than triple the number needed to get it on the ballot. Neighborhood business districts near libraries were festooned with vote-yes placards. Poll workers handed out palm cards.

Not everyone bought it.

"No one is against the library. It's just simply a matter of whether you feel that this is the best way to go about keeping it in a strong position," said Abby W. Schachter, 42, a Regent Square writer. "If this is something people are so committed to, they can donate to the library on a voluntary basis."

That sentiment was in the extreme minority at the Bloomfield polling place where Maggie McFalls, 33, of Squirrel Hill, spent the day with her 5-year-old son Lucas. She said 130 of 147 voters backed the library tax.

"They knew that Pittsburgh was one of the most literate cities in the country and they wanted to keep it that way," said Ms. McFalls, who is a community engagement coordinator for the Carnegie Library. "A lot of people prioritized children, and they felt it was a place children can learn."

Mr. Testoni said the library system has started to address some of the criticisms it took when it was considering closing branches. It is watching its spending closely, putting budgets and board meeting minutes online and expects to have an open-to-the-public board session in February or March.


Rich Lord: rlord@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1542.


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