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Infighting, lack of funds could drive Carnegie Free Library out of business

Sonja Brobeck
Staff Writer

If it wasn't for the fighting among the ranks, the Carnegie Free Library in Carnegie might be in better financial shape.

"They can't resolve anything," says Al Kemper, district coordinator for the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh.

"Even things they all agree they need, they can't agree on."

Kemper points out the issue of a county grant for use on a handicap ramp for the library as a prime example of the problem.

The library had a design that the borough didn't like and the borough had a design that the library didn't like.

Instead of coming to a decision, the fighting went on. And then the money was gone.

"The county dangled the money for two years and then said never mind," Kemper says.

Meanwhile, the library's operating funds have steadily dwindled.

During 1997, the borough designated $5,000 to the library and also agreed to handle some of the maintenance, such as grass cutting and snow removal.

Reportedly, the only reason the borough gave any money was because of the work of the Library Advisory Board. This small group of 12, which by a 1995 by-law should only consist of eight and a chairperson, has taken it upon itself to raise money for the library.

Its goal is to raise $5 million.

The group is far from the goal, the borough being its only victory.

"They've been shaking trees for months, and I haven't seen anything fall yet," says Kemper of the advisory board's efforts.

Kemper isn't sure how successful the advisory board will be because he says people will not contribute to groups where in-fighting is commonplace. Yet, he would love to see the advisory board succeed because he is interested in seeing the building restored.

Al Falcioni, advisory board chairperson, agrees that the fighting has been a large factor in the financial problems the library faces. But, he also feels the problems are soon to be a thing of the past.

"We have a bandage on the wound right now," says Falcioni.

"The $5,000 from the borough this year was an olive branch to the library."

In the preliminary borough budget for 1998, the borough has $10,000 earmarked for the library, says Emmett Freshwater, council member.

However, the increase in money is too little too late, in Betsy Martin's point of view.

She is president of the board of trustees, and says the library will be losing state and Regional Asset Development (RAD) money next year.

State and RAD funding are based partially on local municipal support and are calculated using numbers from two years prior.

Since the Borough of Carnegie only gave the library $1,386 in the way of grass cutting, snow removal and maintenance in 1996, budgeted state and RAD money will be $1,250 less in 1998. The increase in borough funding will more than make up for the loss in funds.

"As a rule, most libraries receive 60 percent of their operating costs from their municipality," says Kemper.

The Upper St. Clair Library received $545,668 from the township for use as operating funds in 1997. Of the 13 mills in real estate taxes collected in Upper St. Clair, two mills are put toward funding the library. The library is also run by the township.

The Crafton Public Library in 1997 received $29,000 toward operating costs from its borough.

Bridgeville Borough gave its library $8,000 plus maintenance worth $1,100.

According to the organization of the Carnegie Free Library, however, the borough is not responsible for funding the library.

Andrew Carnegie funded more than 2,500 libraries throughout the English speaking world. In all but five of these libraries, Carnegie made sure the town helped to fund the building.

The library in Carnegie's home town in Scotland, three libraries built in his steel mill towns and the one library built in the town named after him were exempt from town support. Instead of municipal funding, Carnegie gave endowments to the libraries in Braddock, Homestead and Duquesne, which is where his steel mills were located.

Of those three libraries, only Homestead remains eligible to claim the funds. The original $1 million endowment is only worth $1.2 million now because of conservative investing by U.S. Steel.

Braddock and Duquesne were both sold, making them ineligible for the funds.

In 1899, a $200,000 fund was set up for the Carnegie Library. All of that money is gone.

The last $20,000 was spent in legal fees and settlement money.

The library had been renting space to a church. Every month, the church would subtract from its rent total every time it did anything that helped the library. Some months the church billed the library for money owed.

It got to the point were the church wouldn't vacate because it had improved the library basement and wanted reimbursed for this. The library board went to court and got rid of the problem, but used the last of its endowment money in doing so.

Along with an endowment, Carnegie designed the library with a 17 member board, which consisted of 10 life trustees, six borough council members and one mayor.

By this arrangement, Glenn Walsh, acting secretary for the library, feels that Carnegie meant for the borough to help fund the library by placing the council members and mayor on the board.

Walsh says the library has received money from the borough over the years, but the amount has never been enough to properly fund the library.

This year's operating fund for the library is $130,000. Including the $5,000 donated by the borough, much of the money came from state and RAD funding. The library earned $30,000 of the budget through fund raising.

At its October 20 board meeting, the library announced that it may have to close its doors because of the lack of operating funds.

As it stands, the library is only open 35 hours a week, the minimum number of hours allowed to receive state funding. If the library does not receive state funding, it is not eligible to receive RAD money provided through the extra one percent sales tax paid in Allegheny County.

Of all the libraries in the area, the Carnegie Free Library has the smallest operating budget.

The head librarian works at an annual salary of $18,000. The recommended state minimum salary suggested by the Pennsylvania Library Association is $22,000.

Besides needing more money for operating costs, the library building is in need of repairs and restoration. Although there would not be funds available for restoring the library section of the building, the music hall and Civil War room could possibly receive funds.

The Pittsburgh Historical Commission offers a grant program for historic buildings.