Positions have gone unfilled, hours have been reduced, acquisitions have fallen by more than $1 million. Reading programs have been suspended, and some "story time" may be discontinued altogether. In the past two years, there's been scant good news for the county's public libraries; even the triumphant renovation of one branch was marred at the end when budget shortfalls delayed its reopening.
Given that Montgomery residents use the libraries more frequently -- and more heavily -- than nearly any other county service, their supporters say enough is enough. When the County Council votes tomorrow on fiscal year 2005 funding for the system's nearly two dozen branches, they hope to begin reversing at least some of the cuts and attrition.
The libraries are "pretty much to the bone," Anthony Hsai, who chairs the county library board, stressed this week. His worries echoed those of council members Nancy Floreen (D-At large) and Howard Denis (R-Potomac-Bethesda), who warned in writing late last month that the system "is at a breaking point."
Floreen and Denis want to restore 16 hours to four of the seven libraries where a mid-year "savings plan" forced doors to either open later or close earlier one day a week. Their colleague, George L. Leventhal (D-At Large), is more concerned with allowing hiring for long-vacant staff positions. They've seen the numbers, showing recent drops in circulation despite the ever-increasing demand. They've also heard the stories, of more and more magazines no longer on the shelves, of librarians buying staplers and other supplies with their own money.
"The resources are very, very strained," Leventhal said.
The situation traces to the county's significant and continuing fiscal difficulties. While no one suggests the libraries should not share the pain, supporters point out the role the system plays day to day in a jurisdiction of highly educated and voracious readers who regularly use their library cards and newly arrived immigrants, who often are in critical need of a library's core services.
Nearly half of all county residents checked out a library book in the past 12 months. "I don't know of any other county service that could say half the population walked through its doors in the past year," department director Harriet Henderson noted.
Henderson listed matter-of-factly the impact that cuts have had. While the overall budget has remained flat -- the total County Executive Douglas M. Duncan (D) proposed for fiscal year 2005 could mean a slight bump up to $31.3 million -- the "book budget" that buys new publications and materials has decreased by 20 percent.
"When you serve a community this size, which is highly educated, which has a very intense interest in the education of young children, which has a lot of diversity of language backgrounds, [a smaller acquisitions fund] just doesn't mean you don't buy as many copies of bestsellers," she said.
The gaps in the collection are growing, and five years from now, it will be "even more visibly damaged than it is today."
Across the county, 50 positions are unfilled. Two that coordinated early childhood and multicultural services for the system were simply eliminated. Staff members who otherwise would be leading pre-school reading programs or organizing activities for beginning English speakers are desk-bound, checking in books or helping to maintain the opening-to-closing operation.
The last budget crisis, in the early 1990s, also hit the libraries hard, but maybe not for as long, said Lillian Snyder, who heads the Gaithersburg branch and has worked in the system more than two decades.
"We're counting at least three years [of cutbacks], with the next year not looking a whole lot better," she said. "And the demand is so much greater than it was in '91 because of the changing demographics of the county and all the knowledge needs and technology."
Gaithersburg, which is the busiest library in the county, was one of those that lost four hours a week this spring. Snyder managed to shift a children's program but isn't sure she can maintain that starting in the fall.
The White Oak library also stays open four fewer hours a week now -- and, in fact, has fewer hours of service than it did in 1996, something no other branch has suffered. This time of year, children's librarian Rebecca Ross normally would be going around to area schools and talking up the summer reading program.
"I just can't do it," she said. With the other children's librarian position vacant, there's no way for her to get away. "I have to stay here and man the desk."
The same lament, for the same reasons, is heard in Germantown, which is down not only hours but four circulation and information workers. Manager Maria Pedak-Kari has cancelled all Saturday family story times this summer, as well as the teenager component of the summer reading program. Last year, more than 300 teens participated.
The impact of dollars and demand is "sort of like watching a wall and a Mack truck come together," Pedak-Kari said. "And you're in the middle."
Germantown's library advisory committee has rallied its counterparts upcounty; this spring, five of them signed a letter to council president Steven A. Silverman (D-At Large) asking that no further cuts to the system be accepted. They mentioned that seven-figure drop since fiscal 2002 in money for purchasing new books, periodicals, videos, CDs and books on tape. The "modest increase" proposed for the coming year -- now about $173,000 -- "is very welcome but clearly falls short of reinstating past losses," they wrote.
At the groundbreaking several weeks ago for the new Germantown branch, supporters wore their sentiments on navy blue T-shirts emblazoned with their concern: "Endangered: Your Montgomery County Public Library."
Unless something drastic changes, they fear they'll be wearing those T-shirts again in the future.