Philly Mayor Under Fire For Threatening Libraries

By: By KATHY MATHESON, Associated Press Writer
By: By KATHY MATHESON, Associated Press Writer

PHILADELPHIA (AP) - Some of the loudest protests over proposed city budget cuts in Philadelphia are being voiced for places that are usually ghostly quiet - city libraries.

Mayor Michael Nutter was repeatedly booed during a news conference Monday over his decision to shutter 20 percent of the city's 54 library branches in an effort to help close an estimated $1 billion spending gap over the next five years.

The mayor, who estimated the 11 library closings will save the city $8 million a year, said the shuttered facilities may reopen as public-private partnerships dubbed "knowledge centers" if the city can find enough financial partners.

That didn't go over well with Zachary Hershman, one of a few dozen protesters at the mayor's news conference. Hershman, 23, said the closing of the library in his Kingsessing neighborhood will lead to more dropouts, unemployment and crime in an already poor and violent area.

The next nearest branch is overcrowded, he said, with long waits for Internet use that many residents need to access online job applications.

Library advocates have been extremely vocal since the mayor announced the budget cuts in November. Seven residents and a municipal union sued last week to stop the library closures, contending they are illegal and endanger poorer communities that don't have the luxuries of big chain bookstores and home Internet access.

The mayor is making other cuts, including lowering limits on curbside trash collection, consolidating fire companies, closing 68 of 81 swimming pools, cutting back on snow removal and cutting funding to the city's annual New Year's Day Mummers Parade.

In response to the library cuts, Nutter said he expected books, computers and other materials to stay at the "knowledge centers." But he could not say if the facilities would be staffed by librarians.

The public-private partnerships could be with individuals, corporations, nonprofits or community groups, Nutter said, noting officials have received interest in five or six of the sites.

"We are working diligently every day on this issue," Nutter said.

American Library Association president Jim Rettig said libraries work best as publicly funded entities with trained staff. "It makes as much sense to privatize your libraries as it does to privatize your police force," Rettig said.

To tell people to use another branch doesn't help, he added. "Each branch has its own character," Rettig said. "To say they can go to another branch - if that happens there will be a real adjustment period."

(Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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