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Ohio libraries look to tax levies for relief

  CINCINNATI (AP) - State funding cuts are pushing a record number of Ohio's public libraries to seek local tax levies as they struggle to keep branches open and avoid cutting services that patrons are using more than ever.

 At least 38 of the state's 251 systems have levies on the Nov. 3 ballot - the highest number at one time in the 30 years the Ohio Library Council has kept records. The council says the recession and legislative cuts have led to an overall funding drop of about 20 percent from $450 million in 2008 to almost $367 million this year.

"While there are expectations that we may be coming out of the recession by 2011, it looks like 2010 will be another really hard year," said Lynda Murray, council's director of government and legal services.

An American Library Association survey showed 41 percent of states reported decreased state funding in the 2009 fiscal year, and 20 percent of those expected additional declines. Other states' libraries depending more on local funding also are grappling with big cuts as cities and counties struggle with budget problems.

"Libraries are scrambling to raise private dollars, reducing hours, cutting materials budgets and laying people off, and the hard part is that libraries clearly are playing a critical role in economic recovery," said Sari Feldman, president of the national Public Library Association. "So many more people are using libraries for computers to search and apply for jobs and government benefits and for free entertainment," he said.

Toffee Chilel and her family visit their branch of the Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County constantly, using its computers for job and school purposes and checking out DVDs and books. "I don't know what we would do if it closes," said Chilel, 35, a levy supporter. "We don't have a computer, and we can't afford to buy many books or movies in this economy."

The library system's book circulation is up so far this year by over a half million from 2008 and waiting lines are sometimes an hour or more for computers. Defeat of the 5-year levy expected to generate about $20 million annually would mean reduced hours and possible closure of half of the system's 40 branches with longer waits and fewer people served, said Executive Director Kim Fender. "We've cut everything we can, including hours and staff, but we are facing a $16 million deficit, and we won't be able to avoid closing branches or laying off more employees if the levy fails," Fender said of the system's first levy request in decades.

Libraries realize it could be a difficult time to persuade voters facing their own economic problems to approve more taxes. The Coalition Opposed to Additional Spending and Taxes says there are better alternatives to levies, including adding a $1 charge for DVDs and CDs and closing branches that aren't used as much as others.

"Just because you like and appreciate the value libraries provide the community doesn't mean that they shouldn't be good stewards of the taxpayer dollar," said Jason Gloyd, chairman of COAST, which opposes the levy.

The Puskarich Public Library in eastern Ohio's Harrison County is seeking the first levy in its 120-year history, saying defeat would mean closing one of its three locations and severely cutting the others' hours. "We expect to lose about $241,000 in 2009 and 2010, and that's a huge drop for us," said library Director Sandi Thompson. "In rural areas like this, the library is truly a community and cultural center and about the only place that provides broadband access."

 Some libraries around the country already have closed branches. The public library in Philadelphia faced a complete shutdown this month before Pennsylvania legislators authorized a city sales tax increase, and like so many others, that library still faces financial problems.

 "It's going to be a long time before public libraries throughout the country can make up for losses sustained in this economy," Murray said.

 (Copyright 2009 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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