Booking a Loss | News | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Anticipating funding shortfalls that could result in the closing or consolidating of neighborhood branches, Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh hosted three town-hall meetings throughout July to inform the public of its economic predicament, and to ask for whatever support people could afford: either in dollars or letters to elected officials.

With the meetings, says Barbara Mistick, president and director of Carnegie Library, library officials accentuated the need for "long-term sustainable funding" from the state and local governments. Such concerns have become more serious as the recession has strained almost all of its funding sources. 

"The thing people seem to forget in this community is that Andrew Carnegie did not endow the library," says Mistick. The industrialist paid to construct the actual library structures many decades ago, but insisted that communities themselves pay for the books and staff inside. Still, Mistick says, "There is an overall sense that somehow the library got taken care of and we all can just enjoy it forever, and that's just not the reality."

Operating the Carnegie's 19 branches costs $61,431 a day ... and the library estimates that it will fall into a deficit by next year. Deficits could grow to as much as $6 million in 2014, the library figures. 

The library system receives funding from several sources, including the state, the city of Pittsburgh and private contributions. Two-thirds of its yearly revenue comes from the Allegheny Regional Asset District (RAD), which also funds other cultural institutions, like the Pittsburgh Symphony and the zoo. Last year, RAD allocated about $18 million to the Carnegie library, but that amount is likely to drop significantly. The RAD is funded by a countywide 1 percent sales tax, and the economic slowdown has meant fewer sales and less revenue. 

Tax revenue is down 2.1 percent compared to this time last year, says David Donahoe, executive director for RAD.

"The [Regional Asset] District has a long record of support [for Carnegie Library]," Donahoe says. "The dilemma is, our only source of income is the sales tax, which has taken a hit during this recession period. ...We have this pot that is limited by whatever ends up in it."

At a hearing on Aug. 25, Mistick says, the Carnegie Library will ask for a 10.1 percent increase in funding from RAD. Although she realizes that request is almost impossible to accommodate, that's what's needed to operate. 

If the Republican state budget had passed in full on Aug. 5, funding for public libraries throughout the state would have decreased nearly 50 percent, from $75 million to $37 million. Gov. Ed Rendell vetoed that portion of the budget, telling reporters last week that libraries were "sanctuaries," and emphasizing the importance of supporting them.

Still, Mistick fears massive funding reductions are inevitable.

"[L]et's see them actually make sure that they fund libraries at a level that is sustainable and is long term," says Mistick. "Don't just use us today to be poster child[ren] for whatever the agenda is."

As for the City of Pittsburgh, Mistick calls its support "absolutely nominal." In 2008, the city contributed roughly $71,000 to the library system -- just three-tenths of 1 percent of the Carnegie's operating budget that year. By contrast, Cleveland's Plain Dealer reported in June that Cleveland will be giving its library system $7.5 million -- more than 100 times the size of Pittsburgh's support. 

Mistick met with Mayor Luke Ravenstahl on Aug. 10, but says, "[T]he mayor said to me what all elected officials say to me: They tell me their woes. They tell me, 'We're in oversight. We have a have a $15 million shortfall for next year. We have our own problems.'"

Ravenstahl's office could not be reached for comment by deadline.

Mistick continued, "We think that the libraries are so important that there should be a priority given there, and I think it's going to be a difficult [funding] decision ... just as it's a difficult decision for us if we have to curtail any level of public service."

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