Pennsylvania libraries feeling pressures of continued funding cuts

Pennsylvania's public libraries endured the pain of the funding ax in recent years, cutting back on staff, services, new book purchases and hours of operation. In Washington County, the situation is about to become more dire -- one community's library might have to close altogether.

Citizens and Chartiers-Houston libraries, two Washington County libraries that rely on school districts for a portion of their funding, learned in recent weeks that the districts -- Trinity Area and Chartiers-Houston -- will eliminate their appropriations to the libraries due to budget constraints. The news comes in a year when the state public library subsidy, a portion of the education budget, has fallen to $53.5 million from $75.1 million in 2008-09.

For Chartiers-Houston Library, the school district's $50,000 appropriation was one-third of its total budget. The school district eliminated the appropriation in the face of severe financial difficulties. The library cut is accompanied by six instructor furloughs, including two school librarians, and a tax increase of about $100 per $100,000 of property value. Because of changes to state law, the district's contribution to the employee pension system jumped from $397,000 in 2009-2010 to a projected $1.49 million in 2014-2015.

"I'm pretty sure we can stay open to the end of the year," said Bill Hill, president of the Chartiers-Houston Library Board. "Beyond that it's very murky at this point."

Two longtime employees recently retired, and the library director resigned for unrelated reasons. Those staff reductions along with weekly hours of operation reduced from 56 to 45 -- the state minimum -- will allow the library to continue operating, said Mr. Hill, who is serving as acting director in a volunteer capacity.

The library is going to host a spaghetti dinner in September to raise funds with the hope of staying open into 2015. A dinner-dance is also on the calendar.

"We do all sorts of good things," Mr. Hill said, citing programs for children and young adults, free Internet access for all, tutoring programs and computer classes. "Not only is the library an educational institution, but it fills a social function for the community."

Trinity Area School District eliminated its $26,250 appropriation to Citizens Library, enough to cover about three months of the library's utility bills.

"It's going to have a really serious impact," said Diane Ambrose, director of Citizens Library. "We've already cut as much as possibly can be cut."

She said some part-time staff positions might have to be eliminated, though that would be difficult due to the additional workload.

"We really are operating on a bare-bones staff," she said.

"Our staff cuts have been significant over the past years because of state cuts," said Melinda Tanner, the district consultant librarian for Washington, Greene and Fayette counties, acting as a liaison among state- and school district-supported libraries. "There are no health insurance benefits from the library anymore."

Ms. Tanner, of Waynesburg in Greene County, has been in the position since 1998. Group health coverage was eliminated in 2012 for Citizens Library, she said.

"It's like people treat us like we're a volunteer organization, and we're not," she said.

The cuts are not unique to the rural counties of the southwest. Pittsburgh and Philadelphia have lost almost 50 percent of their state library funds in recent years. A program run by the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh and the Free Library of Philadelphia that serves blind and handicapped residents statewide has not seen a funding increase in over 12 years, according to Mary Frances Cooper, director and president of the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh.

Pittsburgh has been able to maintain relatively steady levels of funding because of an advantage most places do not enjoy: In 2011, Pittsburgh voters endorsed a Carnegie Library Tax to be added to their property tax bills. In 2013, that 0.25-mill tax generated about $4 million for the library. Money from Allegheny County's 1 percent Regional Asset District sales tax has also protected Pittsburgh and its suburbs from the worst of the cuts.

"The property tax was really never meant to supplant the revenue streams we've had in the past," said Ms. Cooper. "Years ago, states recognized that this was an important institution and that there was some obligation on the part of the state" to fund it.

While surrounding counties' librarians might cast an envious eye toward Allegheny County, officials pointed out that Pennsylvania is disadvantaged compared with neighboring states, just as surrounding counties are disadvantaged to Allegheny.

Ohio's state budget provided public libraries with about $344 million in 2012.

"Ohio has amazingly great state funding," said Ms. Cooper.

The 2013-14 Pennsylvania budget provided a $53.5 million public library subsidy, marking the ninth straight year in which the subsidy had held steady or fallen. Gov. Tom Corbett has proposed an increase, which would bring it to just over $54 million.

"It means fewer people in libraries; it means libraries with reduced hours," Glenn Miller, executive director of the Pennsylvania Library Association, said of the chronically low funding. "There are only so many places in libraries where you can cut to balance budgets. And we've been cutting."

Matt Nussbaum:, 412-263-1504 or on Twitter @MatthewNussbaum.

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