In Prince George’s County, where improving education is a major aim of County Executive Rushern L. Baker III, the libraries occupy a special niche.

Baker (D) has long said they are a valuable complement to the county’s public schools, which still lag behind many in the Washington region, and he has shielded the system from budget cuts during the aftermath of the recession. Last year, libraries even received a 1.5 percent increase.

But with the county facing a $152 million budget shortfall, this year could be different. Although Baker, so far, has offered few details, he has made it clear: The libraries, along with other beloved community institutions he has tried to protect, could be hit with big budget cuts.

“It is going to be ugly,” Baker said after a recent community forum as a library employee, clad in a yellow, union-issued T-shirt, pressed him on library finances. “This is a bad year.”

Library supporters have started pushing back, arguing that the county’s 19 libraries play a vital role.

“If education is a paramount concern with Rushern Baker, as he says it is, you can’t take away the piece of the puzzle that is the library,” said Barbara Simon, head of the countywide Friends of the Library. “A blow to the libraries is a blow to education.”

Prince George’s has fiscal challenges that set it apart from other Washington area jurisdictions. The county funds 70 percent of its spending plan with residential property tax revenue, which has been slow to rebound from the economic downturn. A voter-imposed tax cap limits the county government’s ability to raise taxes, which are already among the region’s highest.

Difficult decisions

To make ends meet, Baker is considering such options as slowing down new hires in the police and fire departments and reconfiguring economic development programs.

This is not where Baker wants to be as he begins the third year of a four-year term. When he took the reins of county government, he successfully pushed for more money for schools, public safety and economic development.

This year, he has to consider layoffs and furloughs. He expects to firm up his plans by mid-March and send his budget proposal to the County Council. Then, he says, he will head to the state capital, hat in hand.

Baker has refused to give firm dollar amounts, but library supporters said they have heard from library officials that the library system’s $25 million budget could take a hit of as much $3 million.

That could easily translate into the closing of a branch or two or drastic cuts in library hours for the system, which accounts for about 1 percent of county spending. (Schools account for about 50 percent).

Simon, of Friends of the Library, and the United Food and Commercial Workers union, which represents library employees, have rallied library supporters to attend county budget forums and to blanket Baker and the County Council with letters and e-mails.

“To close even one branch is not the way to balance the budget,” Simon said at a recent budget forum at Friendly High School in Fort Washington. “No neighborhood should ever be singled out for such destructive action. All our neighborhoods deserve a library.”

A popular place

On almost any day, the Spauldings branch library in District Heights offers evidence of the demand for its services. Shortly after opening at 10 one recent morning, its 64 computers were all in use, a preschool story hour was in session, and patrons were doing research and consulting the online card catalogue.

“And this is our less-busy time,” said branch manager Victoria Johnson, who wishes she could open earlier and stay open later.

Trisan Bolden, a stay-at-home mother who lives a few blocks from Spauldings, is among the many residents who use the library to provide their young children with the types of programs they might get elsewhere if they paid to send them to preschool.

“We like the books on tape, the chapter books. They have lots of cool programs, “ Bolden said, as she kept an eye on 21 / 2-year-old Jade, who was leafing through books with big brother Hunter, 7.

“They cannot cut this,” Bolden said.

The library’s popular weekly story hour is eagerly attended by children from nearby day-care programs and schools, and the library is the site of a special-needs story hour that the Prince George’s school system offers every other week. A children’s tea party, one of many programs Johnson and her staff create, is scheduled for Saturday.

The Spauldings branch also caters to older children and adults, with its chess club, quilting group, teen advice program, computer classes and comfortable tables for snacking and chatting.

Even the homeless have a home at Spauldings. The county’s social services agency sent workers over recently to provide information to several homeless residents who are Spauldings regulars.

On Mondays and Tuesdays, when the Spauldings branch doesn’t open until 1 p.m., “people are lined up, waiting,” Johnson said.