Prince William County library officials argue against cuts

By Jennifer Buske
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 28, 2010

The Prince William County library system was once ranked as the third-best in the country for its population size.

Now it doesn't even make the list of top libraries in Hennen's American Public Library Ratings, and some library officials fear it might never climb back up, as budget woes continue for the 10-branch system.

"Ratings are based on performance measures, and funding is a big part of that," library system Deputy Director Virginia Dorkey said. "As you lose funding, you lose staff, you lose hours," and service suffers.

Over the past decade, the library system has lost nearly $1.5 million in funding from the county, library system Director Dick Murphy told the Board of County Supervisors on Tuesday. Now, County Executive Melissa S. Peacor wants to cut an additional $1 million from the library's roughly $13 million budget -- a move that would force two neighborhood libraries to close or officials to severely cut hours of operation.

"One of the few things the people of this county seem to universally love is something we are allowing ourselves to no longer be the elite in, and that bothers me," Supervisor Martin E. Nohe (R-Coles) said. "I'd like to see what our options are here. If we are slipping this much this fast . . . I shudder at the thought of what will happen when we start losing our facilities permanently."

Peacor and the library board of trustees have each presented a plan to supervisors to close the $1 million gap. Both proposals reduce the budget for materials by about $130,000 and cut five support staff positions.

Peacor also proposed closing the Independent Hill and Lake Ridge libraries, which would result in the loss of nine positions and save about $460,000.

The library board, however, said it would rather reduce hours than close two facilities. Library officials proposed to close all libraries Sundays, halve the hours of operation at the six neighborhood libraries and reduce hours slightly at the four full-service libraries. That proposal would result in the loss of 29 positions.

"If the two neighborhood libraries are closed, [it is likely] that they will never be reopened, thus providing additional stress on the library system and the communities they serve," said Burk Andrews, chairman of the library board. "I do not believe I am being overly pessimistic when I say the future of our library system is at stake."

In fiscal 2009, Independent Hill was the least busy neighborhood library, with about 40,000 visitors. It just reopened in March after being closed for almost three months because of an electrical fire, said Debbie Bittner, manager of neighborhood libraries.

Lake Ridge had about 58,000 visitors, in the middle of the pack. Library officials said that events at both facilities are well attended and that the number of material checkouts at Lake Ridge is third-highest among neighborhood libraries.

Library officials said that several children walk to the Lake Ridge library and that members of a nearby senior citizen community frequent it. Library patrons would have to travel four to six miles farther if Lake Ridge closed and eight to 10 miles farther if Independent Hill shut down, officials said.

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