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Loss of Largesse Doesn't Surprise Library Backers

Funds Cut From Stadium Plan

By Manny Fernandez
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 1, 2004; Page B01

Several advocates of the District's public libraries said they were disappointed that the system lost a chance to get millions of dollars from financing for a baseball stadium, but few expressed surprise at the outcome.

The city's 27-branch public library system, which has struggled over the years with deteriorating buildings, budget cuts and low usage, stood to gain $45 million from a community investment package tied to D.C. Mayor Anthony A. Williams's stadium plan.

At the Francis A. Gregory branch library in Southeast last month, council member Jim Graham talks to library advocates and staff about funding. (Kevin Clark -- The Washington Post)

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But yesterday, the D.C. Council approved amendments to the mayor's stadium financing legislation that essentially killed the funding, an effort to reduce the amount that businesses would contribute.

"Even when I first heard that there might be this one-time windfall for the library, I felt that I just entered the twilight zone," said Philip Pannell, a member of the D.C. Public Library's board of trustees since 1996. "The fact that it has not become a reality doesn't really surprise me."

Pannell said he viewed the potential $45 million as more rhetoric than reality and yet another blow to a library system that was forced to reduce its hours of operation because of budget cuts.

Richard Jackson, interim library director, said the system was grateful to be considered for the funds, but no specific plans had been made for how to spend the money other than to use it for buildings instead of operations. "We were very interested, but we knew we had a long way to go, so we didn't make any plans surrounding it," he said.

At the Georgetown library on R Street NW, where aging plumbing and wooden chairs date to the 1930s, branch manager Noel Rutherford said that the news was depressing but that she hoped that the mayor and council would forge a long-term commitment to fix the system. At the Washington Highlands branch on Atlantic Street SW, where a blue tarp covers part of a leaky roof and a lack of heating led to the building being closed for several days recently, Maria Brooks said she was disappointed.

"At first we had a chance of something," said Brooks, who has managed the branch for 20 years. "Where do we go from here?"

But not everyone was disappointed. Leonard Minsky, director of the D.C. Library Renaissance Project, a nonprofit group founded by Ralph Nader, said his organization opposed the $45 million deal because, among other reasons, a one-time offer did not guarantee long-term support. "We foresaw that there were going to be stumbling blocks to the $45 million and that somewhere along the road, that $45 million would be lost," Minsky said.

Williams (D) has called for paying for the stadium largely through a gross receipts tax on large businesses. Council member Jim Graham (D-Ward 1) received a promise that $2 million of that tax revenue each year would go toward debt service on $45 million in bonds for libraries.

Council Chairman Linda W. Cropp (D), concerned about the potential rising costs of a stadium, proposed eliminating a specific commitment for the $45 million Monday. But she promised to introduce legislation in January that would help libraries, and Jackson said he plans to speak with Cropp's aides today about that legislation.

No one yesterday disputed the libraries' need for assistance.

Staffing is so low that branches often open late or close early if a librarian calls in sick and a replacement can't be found. Library systems in Howard and Prince George's counties and other parts of the region had more books, tapes and other materials checked out last year than the District's 1.1 million items.

Previous budget cuts forced most city libraries to close one additional day a week and cut back hours.

Nader's group has helped put the libraries back on the city's political radar screen, and changes already were in the works before the $45 million was offered.

Four branches, in Southeast, Northeast and Northwest, are scheduled for major remodeling.

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