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Task force wants funding for libraries put before voters

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By Bill Zlatos
Monday, Jan. 3, 2011

Pittsburghers showed so much passion for the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh during hearings on the proposed closings of branches, a task force wants to give them a chance to do it again -- this time at the polls.

"We think, when we proposed closing some (branches) and merging some, there was a great uproar," said Allegheny Orphans' Court Judge Frank Lucchino, chairman of the Carnegie Library's Public Private Task Force. "The issue becomes how do people feel when they have to make a decision at the ballot box."

The task force has recommended that the issue of public funding of the Carnegie Library system be put to a vote. Lucchino said his group did not specify the wording of the proposal or whether the vote should be binding.

"You could have a referendum and say we're prepared to give a portion of existing taxes or add some small amount to the tax bill and have that be dedicated directly to the library," he said. "The idea is to give citizens an opportunity to decide how they want to do that and if they want to do that."

Lucchino's panel was created to give the library board ideas about long-term funding.

In 2009, the board recommended closing branches in Beechview, Hazelwood, Lawrenceville and the West End -- a plan that was shelved after community outrage.

The Carnegie Library board appointed a special joint task force consisting of its trustees and members of Lucchino's panel. The joint group will meet at the end of January to discuss the task force's suggestions.

The special task force will look at the requirements for a vote, the timing and the wording, said Carnegie Library spokeswoman Suzanne Thinnes.

A vote could help break a standoff between Mayor Luke Ravenstahl and the library system. City Council gave the Carnegie Library $600,000 last summer and approved in June 2010 another $640,000, but the mayor has not released the money.

The other recommendations from the task force were increasing contributions from individuals and corporations, boosting the endowment, now about $10 million, getting more money from the Allegheny Regional Asset District and getting state tax credits for contributions by individuals and corporations.

"After 115 years, that's a pretty meager endowment," Lucchino said.

Lucchino said the sum of these suggestions should raise an additional $4 million or $5 million a year.

"It would help us with our deficit because we're still projecting a $4 million deficit by 2014," Thinnes said.

Chuck Staresinic, president of the Friends of the Lawrenceville Library, endorsed the idea of a public vote on the library. However, he preferred that the question refrain from calling for a tax increase.

"Personally, I would rather see it be redirection of tax money or a share of tax money from something like natural gas extraction," said Staresinic, 40, of Lawrenceville. "We're a state that spends an absurd amount of money on the Legislature that is way larger than it needs to be. I'd love it if the state could eliminate several representatives and use the savings for other needs."

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