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Book Stupid

Is the Troy Public Library the victim of economic downturn or political ill will?

On Nov. 4, when Troy voters went to the polls, they were met with two propositions relating to their public-library system. The first was for the establishment of a special library district, and the second was to fund that district. Can you guess which proposition failed and which succeeded?

Currently, the library system is an association that was chartered a century ago to serve the city of Troy. The library board is not directly elected by the citizens of Troy. The Troy voter has no real say over the library’s budget. The board is a self-perpetuating board.

“The voter doesn’t really have the control over the library that they would have under a district library,” said Paul Hicok, Troy Public Library director. Establishing the special district would give the voter a significant influence over the library’s functioning. From budgeting to the election of trustees, a special library district functions nearly identically to a school district. And the voters voted 2 to 1 in favor of this change.

However, the shift to the special district also means that the library, instead of receiving money through the city budget, would receive its funding directly from the taxpayer in the form of a special tax. Another tax, which, before the election, became a political football in the hands of the cigar-chomping Republican Rensselaer County legislator, Troy Department of Public Works commissioner, and onetime “constituent liaison” for the state Senate, Robert Mirch.

“The people can’t afford more taxes,” said Mirch. “If it comes to funding a library or buying a couple of snowplows, the choice is obvious. I mean, I don’t know how much the library gets used, with the Internet and computers nowadays.”

“That’s obviously a gross oversimplification, but Bobby Mirch is good at oversimplifying everything in life,” said Hicok.

According to the library’s statistics, usage has been steadily increasing for every library in the region. Last year, the Troy Public Library system saw a full 10-percent increase in usage over 2007. “The Republican representatives were trying to create an issue where no issue really exists, politically, and I don’t think that they won that round,” Hicok said. “Mostly, people were more confused over the split propositions than anything else. I don’t think that the people were convinced by the Republicans that they shouldn’t create a district. People are fully aware of what happens to funding when it is mixed up with the city’s general operating budget.”

As the library’s budget stands now, it is forcing the closure of both the Sycaway and Lansingburgh satellite branches in February. According to sources, the movement to defeat the special district was generated within the Republican-controlled Lansingburgh districts, where Mirch holds strong political sway.

Mirch, who has a reputation of saying whatever is politically expedient, laid the blame for the library closings at the feet of the library board, chastising them in the pages of Wednesday’s Record, stating: “I think the library should have researched different options, instead of closing [the branches] and disenfranchising residents of the ‘Burgh and Sycaway.” Which is odd, considering that in the days before Election Day, he sent out a taunting press release blasting the attempts to fund the new special district, claiming that the “council Democrats arrogantly thought they could sneak their tax by the voters, but alas, like Sherlock Holmes or the Hardy Boys, I am helping solve the mystery of the ‘Unneeded Library Tax. . .’ ”

The closure of the two branches is a direct result of the library’s unsuccessful attempts to secure the new tax revenue, and because the mayor’s budget failed to assist the library with an additional $150,000 in funds.

Troy Council President Clem Campana called the closures unfortunate, but backed away from saying that the council would attempt to find the library additional funding. And it could definitely not support an additional tax.

“People are not blaming the library for the branch closures,” Hicok said. “They are blaming the City Council, and the mayor. All the responses I have gotten are blaming the city. Those are all the responses I have gotten.”

The library board plans to hold a special election for the library that presents the voters a proposition that includes the creation of the special district as well the funding.

—Chet Hardin

What a Week

Less Is, Well, Less

Notice a lack of heft to your Times Union this week? Very astute of you. As the editors of the leading local daily have written on their blogs and in their columns, the TU, like practically every media outlet across the country (including the one you’re reading right now), is cutting back costs in the face of a woefully slow economy and grim first-quarter outlook. Rex Smith, the editor of the TU, wrote in his column that many of the changes, though coming under financial pressures, also were the result of listening to readers and trying to accommodate their expectations for content from the dead-tree version of the paper.

No Names, Please

Albany County District Attorney David Soares has taken the unusual step of asking the media to resist printing the names of the witnesses in the murder trial of Kathina Thomas, and it seems, so far, that the local media have agreed. The 10-year-old Thomas was struck and killed earlier this year outside her home in West Hill by a bullet that allegedly was shot from a gun held by 16-year-old Jermayne Timmons. The young age of many of the witnesses appears to be playing a major role in the media’s decision to cooperate with Soares’ office, the Times Union reported Monday. Along with the TU, four local television stations have also agreed to omit the names.

Jennings, a Dalai Lama Fan Boy?

As we are reporting online, Albany Mayor Jerry Jennings has endorsed the latest scheme from the region’s favorite bizarre recluse, Keith Raniere. Founder of the controversial, multi-million-dollar executive-training program, NXIVM, Raniere recently founded the World Ethical Foundations Consortium. According to the WEFC’s Web site, on Feb. 3, the consortium will hold an inaugural event right here in Albany, and its leaders are hoping that the guest of honor will be none other than his holiness, the Dalai Lama. The Dalai Lama in Albany? Sound strange? Sound plausible? Backed by the heirs of the Seagram’s fortune, and Virgin Group billionaire Sir Richard Branson, the consortium appears to be serious. Serious enough to have already reached out to Jennings, who happily lent his endorsement and support. Check out our blog, metroland, to read more.

No Candy Coating

Photo: Martin Benjamin

Gov. David Paterson delivered what many are calling a bleak State of the State address Wednesday, his first since taking office this spring. Paterson’s short tenure as governor has been consumed with financial worries, and plans and resolutions to steer the state through the slow-motion economic collapse dominated his speech. As the governor spoke to the assembled media and legislative leaders, activists from across the state gathered outside the Capitol building to protest Paterson’s budget, which slashed significantly at programs for the most vulnerable in our state.





Loose Ends

-no loose ends this week-

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