Buffalo-born Mark Russell brought his trademark satire and comedic melodies to downtown Buffalo on Sunday, entertaining a sold-out crowd of 320 people in the Central Library and helping to raise thousands of dollars for libraries across Erie County.
Russell, who hosted the Mark Russell Comedy Special for 30 years on WNED-TV and Public Television, opened with a musical number about Buffalo, singing that “Buffalo was blessed/with the host of ‘Meet the Press,’ ” Tim Russert, and name-checking everything from Lake Erie to beef on ’weck.
His zingers touched on all the taboo topics – sex, religion and politics – and skewered Republicans and Democrats alike. He jokingly announced his candidacy for superintendent of Buffalo schools and poked equal fun at Buffalo Mayor Byron W. Brown, social media and aging.
“An identity thief stole my identity,” Russell quipped. “He returned it because nobody wants to be an 80-year-old comedian with arthritis.”
Russell was in town visiting the library’s Mark Twain Room when he agreed to volunteer his time for the fundraising event.
“He asked how we were doing because he was familiar with library budget cuts across the nation,” said Mary Jean Jakubowski, library director for the Buffalo & Erie County Public Library system.
Library officials filled Russell in on funding woes and asked if he would be interested in helping out with an appearance.
“He said, ‘Absolutely.’ He was so excited to do it,” Jakubowski said.
Sunday’s event raised $8,200, which will be divided among the library’s 37 branches to buy new reading materials.
The library, which has been hit with three major budget cuts, is again heading into budget season.
“We’re still not fully restored to the funding we had in 2007 and 2008, and we’re working with the County Legislature to hopefully stabilize and restore funding to previous levels,” Jakubowski said.
Attempts to create a separate taxing district to support the library have been tabled. The creation of a special taxing district would have allowed the library to levy its own taxes, similar to suburban school districts and given county residents the authority to vote on the library’s budget proposal and elect members to the library board of trustees.
The Erie County Legislature voted that proposal down last month.
With that plan set aside for now, the library is forming a new group that will work to develop other forms of financial stability and has kicked its fundraising efforts into high gear.
“This community loves its libraries and knows they continue to be relevant in these changing times,” Jakubowski said.
“We want to continue to offer the services they depend on and everything else they’ll need in the future.”
The library received $22.6 million this year to fund 37 libraries, pay staff and buy books, CDs and DVDs. But the libraries haven’t always been allocated that much, even though county tax bills include a line labeled “library tax.” It is not a dedicated revenue; it merely reflects how much county officials decide to allocate each year.
As the county dealt with the “red-green” budget crisis and other fiscal problems over the last decade, the library system’s budget was cut by $7 million in 2005, resulting in the closing of 15 branches, layoffs of more than 200 employees and reduced library hours. That was followed by a $1.6 million hit to the library’s budget in 2009 and another cut of $1 million in 2011.