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Durham County Library officials are worried that the county's new budget will stifle future growth

There is a small black plastic box on Roberta Tilden's desk marked Desiderata. Tilden, collection-development librarian for Durham's public libraries, says that she has always used the Latin word she learned in library school to refer to a "wish list." That changed when the state--grappling with an $800 million shortfall--withheld tax reimbursements for Durham County to the tune of $3.2 million earlier this year. The library's budget, along with those of most county offices, was frozen. Now Tilden's box and two others cardboard boxes are filled with book-request cards--more than 1,500 titles that the library cannot buy.

Even with a new fiscal year approaching, library advocates say that the 2002 budget does not provide enough money to fill holes and maintain current levels of service. They question spending decisions, saying that the county manager's office overstepped its bounds by determining how library money would be spent during the freeze.

The 2002 recommended budget of $5.9 million is an increase over this year's $5.6 million. But library officials say that while the increase accounts for added insurance costs and security, plus routine salary raises, there is little allotted for growth in services or materials. Additional money for materials came only last week, from a class-action lawsuit settlement with bookseller Baker & Taylor. The library was awarded more than $44,000 this spring, and the money has been held by the county, awaiting allocation. County budget officials originally planned to use that money to boost next year's budget. When questioned by county commissioners about the wisdom of linking the settlement to next year's funds, County Manager Mike Ruffin removed the $44,000 from the 2002-revenue list, allowing that money to be allocated to the library this year. Ruffin then added $45,000, from the county's general fund, for next year's materials, he says, because community support for the library was so strong.

"I think that they made a worthy sacrifice this year. They trimmed their budget--with reservations--and I think this is the year to help them," Ruffin says.

But even the combined $89,000 won't heal the estimated $250,000 hit the library took, representing 30 percent of their yearly materials budget. A projected increase next year of 10 percent in book costs and 5 percent in periodical costs will further widen the gap.

In the long run, much of the library's future rests on a $74 million bond package that will be on the ballot this November. The referendum includes $10.2 million for an eastern branch, for land acquisition for Parkwood and North Durham branches--both of which are currently leasing space--and for renovations at Stanford Warren branch on Fayetteville Street. Commissioner Ellen Reckhow has expressed concern that--should the state withhold inventory reimbursements next year--the bond package may be a tough sell. The $430.9 million general fund includes a 2.3 cent property tax increase this year. Reckhow says that should the county have to make up another $6.5 million in absence of the state funding, the public may not easily support the bond package, which includes a minimal tax increase, less than 1 percent.

Money is not the only problem. Library advocates are concerned about a decision made this spring by Ruffin to allow for the purchase of large-print and school-support materials in the midst of the freeze. When library director Dale Gaddis appealed to the county manager's office, saying that the collection would be damaged by a hold on all materials, she was asked to prepare a list detailing essential purchases. The list was reviewed and Gaddis says that deputy manager Carolyn Titus gave her the go-ahead for only large-print and school-support materials. The library defines school-support as books on area school reading lists.

Library advocates like retired fiction librarian Joanne Abel worry that the decision sets a dangerous precedent. "The county has never given guidelines on what we could buy, only how much money we could spend," she says.

Hugh Giblin, a patron and library volunteer at the main branch feels that only professional librarians should make acquisition decisions. Giblin wrote in a letter to Ruffin that "county managers extending their power into the choice of reading material precludes and overrides the legitimate role of library professionals and amounts to an exercise in censorship."

Ruffin says that his decision was a well-intentioned attempt to ease the impact of the freeze on the elderly and low-income patrons. "We were trying to help a few groups that we didn't think should be punished by the freeze," Ruffin says.

Library board president Bessie Carrington wishes that the staff had been empowered to make the call on which books to buy. "Librarians make these decisions in good times and bad," she says. "It is a professional responsibility. I would have rather the county have said 'cut this much out of your budget' and then let us make the decisions."

The decisions for next year have been made, and commissioners plan to vote on the budget next Monday night. But advocates are still worried. Gaddis recently outlined her concerns for the upcoming year. Sitting nervously at the long table in front of the five commissioners and Ruffin, she listed technology and materials as two areas that need additional funding. Gaddis reported to commissioners that if the library were to follow industry-standard calls for computer replacements every three to five years, a five-year model would call for 33 computers to be replaced this year. No replacement funds are included in the manager's recommended budget. Of a requested $116,000 for computer replacements, software and upgrades, the library system was awarded $11,000--a cut from last year's $46,800--to allow for software upgrades. Computers are considered one-time purchases and there are no guaranteed yearly allotments for technology. Ruffin acknowledges that technology is a problem countywide and hopes to have a plan instituted next year. Gaddis says that despite a grant from the Gates Foundation that will allow for new computer purchases at inner-city branches, many computers still need immediate attention. "Monitors are failing, keyboards are malfunctioning, CPUs are crashing. Without funds to maintain the computers we have, the public will increasingly find out-of-order signs when they come to use our resources," she says.

Library patrons have been pitching in to help, donating time and new books. Volunteers have helped ease the stress of a hiring freeze (there are currently 18 vacant positions). Volunteer hours at the library last year amounted to 3.5 full-time positions, a 53 percent increase from the previous year. The Regulator Bookshop has donated best sellers, like Stephen King's new book Dreamcatcher. The largest donation this spring came from 10-year-old Britomarte Strickler, who hosted a book sale in her front yard. The proceeds of more that $1,100 allowed Tilden to purchase copies of 62 titles, including multiple copies of popular children's books like J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter spin-off series.

Patrons have also been speaking out. Wearing stickers that read "The very best place to start: Durham County Library," dozens of patrons, some as young as 9 years old, spoke out at a public meeting last Monday, asking for additional money for materials, technology upgrades and capital improvements. Altha Trowell, a member of the library board, praised library staff and expressed concern over the future needs of a growing county.

Library officials say that they are looking toward the future of the library, while still working to measure the impact of the four-month spending freeze. "It is going to be a tight year," says Carrington, calling for reform of the budget process as a whole. "I hope that the manager will look at the budget process in a broader way. There is no way to innovate with the current way we present our budgets." EndBlock

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