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Washington County lags in library funding

April 01, 1999|By BRENDAN KIRBY

Washington County ranks near the bottom of the state in financial support for its library, according to several measurements of funding.

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Library boosters say the statistics point to a critical need for a greater investment.

"The library has received disproportionately large cuts during the lean years and disproportionately small increases during the good years," said Suzanne Hayes, a member of the library's board of trustees. "It's been a poor cousin."

The library's per capita budget - $15.95 in fiscal 1998 - ranked 23rd out of 24 library systems in the state, according to the Maryland State Department of Education's Division of Libraries and Development Services.

The state average for fiscal 1998, the last year for which statistics are available, was $29.56.

About 53 percent of the library's budget came from the county in fiscal 1999. Only two jurisdictions contribute a smaller share of their library budgets, according to state records.

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The state average is 70 percent.

Hayes and other board members lobbied the Washington County Commissioners this week for more than $1.25 million, a 12.8 percent increase.

Although it looks like a hefty increase, library board members said it would only begin to make up for years of small increases.

"We're deep in the hole. We're way behind," said Michael Schaefer, the board's president. "This will hardly make a dent."

The county's budget office recommended keeping the library's budget the same for the coming fiscal year, but Commissioners President Gregory I. Snook said he instructed officials to plan for an increase of $87,000, or 7.8 percent.

The commissioners will discuss the budget again next week, and Snook said he would search for a way to boost funding even more.

"If I can find a little bit more, I will," he said. "We're not going to make it up all in one year."

The commissioners will not finalize their budget proposal until next month, with a vote coming in May.

Commissioner Bert L. Iseminger Jr. said he, too, thinks libraries are a high priority. But he said the commissioners need to examine the request in the context of the entire budget.

"I certainly thought they made a good case," he said.

Hayes said a strong library system is important both for economic development and improving education. She said this is a pivotal budget for the commissioners, four of whom were elected to a first term last November.

"Because this is a newly elected board, this budget cycle will be the test of where their priorities lie," she said.

The library trustees have laid out a number of goals for the coming year, including:

- Giving 4 percent merit pay raises to employees.

- Adding Sunday hours at the main library in Hagerstown.

- Increasing hours at the Smithsburg branch from 21 to 30 a week.

- Increasing the book budget, which is the third lowest per capita in the state, by 8 percent.

"I think the most immediate concern is the staff," said trustee Thomas Kloc.

Kloc said the library board froze salaries in fiscal 1993 after the county cut the budget. Since then, raises have averaged less than 3 percent.

State aid to libraries is based on a formula that considers a county's population and wealth. This year, Washington County received $5.77 per capita from the state, the sixth highest in the state.

"Washington County doesn't spend very much, but you're also poorer," said Maurice Travillian, assistant state superintendent for libraries. "Some of it is ability to pay. Some of it is willingness to pay."

Travillian said the county's small share of funding may have historical roots. Washington County Free Library began as a private organization with some help from the county. It became part of the state library system in 1945, Travillian said.

Washington County's library system is the second oldest countywide system in the United States, according to Washington County Free Library's Web site.

The Washington County library system was not alone in suffering lean times in the early 1990s. Library advocates said libraries across the state took hits during the recession and have been playing catch-up ever since.

"Since about 1990, everybody's had trouble keeping up. We keep getting squeezed in the book budget," said Maurice Rindskopf, president of Citizens for Maryland Libraries. "The point we keep making is that the library is such a small part of the budget."

Davis B. McCarn, who heads a lobbying group called Publius, said research has demonstrated a link between the number of new books libraries buy and reading proficiency.

"If you're not spending money on media centers in schools or libraries, you've got a pretty good reason why kids in the county aren't reading well," he said.

According to state statistics, the Washington County library system loaned out almost seven materials for every resident last year, the 13th highest in Maryland. The cost, $1.99 per material, was the second cheapest.

"The citizens of Washington County are getting more service that other counties for what they're putting into it," McCarn said.

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