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Financial situation dire for Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh

| Tuesday, June 23, 2009

The Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh faces a deficit that, left unchecked, could grow to $6.1 million by 2014, and its budget can't be reduced any further without affecting services, officials said Monday.

"The bottom line is, if we don't receive new funds, we will be forced to cut services," said Barbara Mistick, president and director of the library. "We will be forced to cut programs. We will be forced to cut branches."

The 19-branch system balanced this year's $23.3 million budget by cutting three hours a week at the main library in Oakland, freezing salaries and not filling vacant positions.

But Mistick warned the library system cannot continue to cut without affecting people and its branches. She said officials would hold public hearings to ask for suggestions about how to stop the deficit from spiraling out of control.

Without more money, the Carnegie Library projects a deficit starting at $3.2 million next year and growing to $6.1 million in five years.

Library officials conceded this is a difficult time to ask for money because of the recession.

"We recognize we're all challenged at the national, state and local level," said Jacqui Fiske Lazo, who chairs the Carnegie Library's board. "We need advocates on behalf of the library."

Some library patrons agree the Carnegie deserves more public support.

Steve Pennell, 39, of Bridgeville is among those who take advantage of free computers the library provides people who can't afford them. Pennell said he would be willing to accept an increase in taxes to help support the libraries.

"It seems like the last thing that should be cut," Pennell said.

Yesterday marked the second visit to the Carnegie for Laura Gahr, 28, of Oakland, with her 8-month-old son, Frederick.

"It's important for my baby to see other babies and interact with people," she said. "Otherwise, there's no place to go."

But library patron Bill Skonsky, 68, of Green Tree said the smart thing to do is close little-used branches.

"I think what they need to do is use their money more wisely," he said. "If they cut that down to 12 (branches), they'd still have enough."

The Carnegie Library is awaiting results of a study by the Center for Economic Development at Carnegie Mellon University on the appropriate number of branches. Mistick said the system runs the same number of branches for 314,000 residents of Pittsburgh as it did when the city was home to 700,000 in 1950.

The library system gets 71.8 percent of its revenue from Allegheny Regional Asset District. But the RAD money for community assets has declined during the recession; the fund is built from half of an additional 1 percent sales tax in Allegheny County. The other half goes to offset property tax relief.

"(RAD) has, in fact, not made any decision to decrease funding for the Carnegie Library," executive director David Donahoe said in an e-mail. "In fact, we have taken a lot of time to try and do exactly the opposite."

The state provides 20.5 percent of the library system's money; earned income, 4.3 percent; fundraising, 3.2 percent; and the city, 0.2 percent.

Glenn R. Miller, executive director of the Pennsylvania Library Association, said Pennsylvania library officials are concerned about possible cuts in state funding. Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter proposed closing 11 of 54 branches.

"We are the lifeline for people who are unemployed, and the irony is looking at having to close hours when they ought to open more hours to serve those who are out of work," Miller said.

Pittsburgh gives $40,000 a year to the libraries, as stipulated in trust documents from benefactor Andrew Carnegie in 1895.

Mistick pointed to the "Free to the People" sign chiseled in Indiana limestone at the entrance of the library, saying Carnegie could not have envisioned how paltry the city's contribution would become.

Joanna Doven, spokeswoman for Mayor Luke Ravenstahl, said there has been no talk of changing the city's contribution to the Carnegie.

However, she said, the city invested about $175,000 in the new Hill District branch and urged the state to give the Carnegie $500,000 for a new North Side branch.

Ravenstahl has offered a payroll tax on nonprofits as a budget option if the city does not privatize its parking lots.

"We don't have a thorough analysis of how that would affect the Carnegie," Doven said.

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