By MARALINE KUBIK
VINDICATOR STAFF WRITER
YOUNGSTOWN -- Libraries level the learning field, making the Internet equally accessible to everyone, including more than half of Ohio's households without computers.
Reduced funding would not only jeopardize those services, but could keep the poor from participating in governmental and educational activities, industry officials say.
That is the primary concern of about 50 librarians in the local public system.
Under Gov. Bob Taft's proposed budget, Ohio libraries could lose $50 million in state support, says Sen. Timothy J. Ryan of Warren, D-32nd.
Possible freeze: The loss would actually be a result of freezing the amount libraries get through the Library Local Government Support Fund and changes in the way funds from the Ohio Public Library Information Network are designated, according to Nancy Currie, president of the Northern Ohio Library Association and director of the Madison Public Library in Madison.
Libraries get much of their funding from the LLGSF, which is based on income tax. If the freeze goes into effect, Ohio libraries will get the same amount of funding they received the year before, even though tax collections may have increased.
That's a problem when libraries are working to meet growing needs in the communities they serve, she said.
More than 100 people a day use the computer center at the main branch of the library.
Carlton A. Sears, director of the Public Library of Youngstown and Mahoning County, said demand for time in 12 smaller computer labs at branch libraries is just as strong.
That's not surprising, considering the results of the latest survey the library conducted to determine how it can best serve the community, Sears said.
Sixty-six percent of the county's suburban residents have access to the Internet at home, at work or both. In Youngstown, the situation is reversed; 66 percent of city residents have no access.
Biggest impact: If reduced funding triggers cuts in computer and Internet services that the library offers, the greatest impact would be on the disadvantaged -- those who can't afford a computer or Internet access.
Sears estimates the loss of funding to the local system at $886,000 over two years.
This year's budget is $12.5 million. Fifty-five percent of that, or $6.76 million, goes to employee pay and benefits. The rest covers operating expenses, while two special funds cover technology development and building renovation and construction.
Money is set aside years in advance to address specific needs the community identifies, said Janet Loew, the local system's director of communications and public relations, and they vary from year to year.
For example, the construction budget for this year is unusually high -- $5.1 million -- but two new buildings are going up in Poland and Austintown. No new buildings are slated for next year, she said, so the construction budget is only $2 million.
Reduced library funding would not only affect library programming and operations, it could impact feedback to the government from disadvantaged citizens.
Taft announced his strategic plan last month for the electronic delivery of state services. If broad segments of the population have no access to the Internet, their access to these services, including government information online, is all but eliminated, Sears said.
Demand has grown: The demand for library services is increasing, evident in the growing number of users and their frequency of use.
Much of that increase is because of the new technologies available.
"The library is one of the first places in the community where people can experience new technology," said Diane Vicarel, managing supervisor of information services at the Public Library of Youngstown and Mahoning County. "Available technology heavily influences patron usage."
A lack of funds could impair the library's ability to remain on the cutting edge. What Sears fears most is that a funding reduction could become permanent, crippling introduction of new technology at the library for years.
A freeze in 1991, Sears said, was followed by a permanent reduction in 1995 from 6.3 percent of personal income tax to 5.7 percent.
Although he declined to speculate on which services would be the first to feel the pinch, Sears said it would be impossible for the library to continue to provide the same level and quality of services or to meet growing needs of the community.