The Clarence Public Library's board of trustees is signaling support for creating a special countywide library taxing district to give libraries a stable source of funding and to ensure branches stay open.
"This would be a way to make sure that the libraries always have money they could count on," Judy Hilburger, president of the Clarence library board, told the Town Board last week.
Clarence library trustees say they are prepared to vote in favor of a "memorandum of understanding" demonstrating that the Clarence library would "opt in" to a proposed countywide taxing district. Other library boards in the Buffalo & Erie County Public Library system are similarly being asked to declare their positions, Hilburger said.
The creation of a special taxing district would still have to clear some hurdles. For one, County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz has expressed some skepticism about the idea. State legislation also would need to be passed, and then Erie County voters would have to support forming a district. Advocates hope that vote would happen in November 2013.
Clarence library leaders met with the Town Board at last week's work session to explain the concept. Hilburger said the proposed new district would not acquire library buildings and would be designed to protect the libraries' funding.
"What has happened in the past is that library money has been borrowed for other purposes," Hilburger said. "And all these other purposes may be very worthy, but the library is then left short."
Under the proposed new approach, she said, if the library system wanted to increase its annual budget, it would need voter approval.
Town Attorney Lawrence M. Meckler told Hilburger he felt it was "absolutely imperative" that the Clarence library board "sign on to this."
"The reason being is, if you don't sign on, and the process goes through, and they have the referendum next year, and they vote it in, and you're not [part of it], then the only way that you can get funded would be through the county, as opposed to the special library district," Meckler said.
The attorney added: "For the [Clarence] library system to not opt in at this point in time would put you in a position where the taxpayers of Clarence would be paying the special district tax, and Clarence would not be getting the funding through the special district."
Meanwhile, the Association of Erie County Governments, which brings together municipal leaders from around the county, voted Thursday to oppose the library memorandum of understanding and to urge their municipal library boards of trustees to not sign it, said Robert A. Geiger, a Clarence Town Board member who attended the meeting and voted on behalf of Clarence.
"Really what we're supporting is to get more information on it," he said in explaining his vote.
The association's resolution lists multiple objections to a library taxing district. Among them, it says such a district would "strip" local boards of trustees of their authority and introduce another taxing level to local governments. The association also contends that the process is "putting pressure on local library boards of trustees to support this effort always with the fear of retribution if they don't go along with the process."
At the Town Board work session, Monica Mooney, the Clarence library's director, mentioned a postcard campaign that urges Poloncarz to restore library funding in the upcoming county budget.
Town Supervisor David C. Hartzell Jr. weighed in. "I spent the afternoon with [Poloncarz]," he told Mooney. "He's trying to shut down the Clarence [Industrial Development Agency], so that's what you're dealing with [with] that person, so I'd be careful about who's on the other side of that desk." He was referring to a state legislative hearing in Buffalo last week, where Poloncarz complained about some tax breaks granted by local IDAs.
Town Board members said they wanted to hear more details about the library district proposal and invited Clarence library trustees and other library system officials to meet with them Wednesday.
Hartzell said he was interested to "see how the dollars are going to roll out on this and all the specifics."