Overdue: Finally, some ideas to help fund the libraries

Written by Susan Mannella on .

It's encouraging that so many political leaders are proposing ways to help fund the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh system, but it's too early for patrons to get their hopes up too high.

Since the initial outcry over a decision by the library's board to close four branches and merge two others, Allegheny County Executive Dan Onorato has suggested using any local revenue from casino table games to fund libraries. City Councilman Doug Shields wants to give the library $600,000 from a city fuel fund that has a surplus. Mayor Luke Ravenstahl has pledged to work on finding $1.2 million in short-term funding.

Their hearts are in the right place -- libraries engender that sort of response -- and, let's face it, doing something to forestall the closings also would mollify angry constituents. But without the promise of more than short-term solutions, the additional help might be generating false hope for the future of all the branches.

Tapping the city's fuel fund could help forestall any closures, and revenue from table games seems like a good place to look for a permanent funding stream for libraries. But there are serious, unresolved issues related to table games -- state lawmakers haven't decided what the tax rate on the games will be, whether the revenue will feed the state's General Fund or provide property tax relief, and whether local taxing bodies like the city or county will get a piece of it. Any dollars, if they come, could be a long way off.

The problem of funding for the Carnegie Library system did not develop overnight. In fact, the library's board and staff began studying the system's long-term needs two years ago. Their review included the city's population and topography, circulation figures and the number of visitors to each library, as well as the physical plant, including costs of future renovation. The troubling conclusion reached by board members was that the system could not afford to continue operating all of its branches.

It's good news that so many public officials are anxious to help the library, but if they're to be successful, they have a lot of work to do.


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