City Council's decision to allocate $600,000 immediately to the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh is good news for the short term, but it would be a mistake to consider it "mission accomplished" when the goal is saving all of the system's branches for the long term.
Council President Doug Shields made a smart call in proposing that the city take excess funds from the account used to pay for vehicle fuel. It has a surplus due to lower fuel prices than were anticipated when the 2009 budget was prepared a year ago. With this stop-gap funding in place, libraries President Barbara K. Mistick now can ask her board members for a temporary reprieve from the unpalatable step they took last month in voting to close four branches and consolidate the operations of two others.
That would be the wise course because the prospect of closing branches for the first time in the system's 114-year history was a call to action for supporters of the library, and those efforts are ongoing but incomplete.
Lou Testoni, the library board's finance chairman, said the system will need more money from the city, state or other sources next year, in addition to internal cost-saving measures it will employ, which may include reducing hours at some branches. And that's just to get through a year. In a wide-reaching study of library operations conducted during the past year, the system estimated that it must reduce annual operating expenses by at least $3 million and find at least $2 million per year in new revenue to be sustainable.
The most promising option for the future is the notion of designating a portion of new state revenue that will come once table games at casinos are legalized. If state legislation directs it, the table games could provide a steady stream of dollars for libraries across the state, including Pittsburgh's, in much the same way that the Allegheny Regional Asset District already sends the library system the largest portion of its budget, $16.7 million from RAD toward the library's total $23.3 million budget this year.
With the prospect of a long-term solution, it would be a mistake for the library trustees to move forward with their closing plan, however well-thought-out and necessary it was when it was formulated. With the new city dollars in hand, it can afford to wait and see a little longer.