Sep 12


Many ways to fund a library in Buffalo

For starters, there's the community benefits agreement involving the Buffalo Bills stadium. State and city money could also be used to supplement what might be expected from Erie County. The question is whether there's the political will to address book deserts.

Inglewood, California, Mayor James Butts Jr. has a suggestion for Buffalonians interested in a new public library: use the Bills’ community benefits agreement.

Butts would know. The community benefits agreement between his city and the Los Angeles Clippers basketball team – which originated as the Buffalo Braves – included $6 million for improvements to Inglewood’s public libraries. 

“We asked for it specifically,” Butts said.

Slashed budgets from nearly 20 years ago – in what’s known as the Red-Green Budget – “decimated” the Buffalo and Erie County Library system. Sixteen library branches were closed. As a result, several neighborhoods on the East Side are now considered book deserts, a previous Investigative Post analysis found.

Neighborhood advocates have requested a new library in the Broadway-Fillmore area. 

Few politicians have taken up the call, given budgetary concerns at the city and county levels. But there is precedent for increased funding to libraries through alternative avenues. 

Locally, Buffalo could look just over its northeast border to the Town of Amherst, which used municipal funds and private donations – including proceeds from annual galas – to  help save the Williamsville library branch from being closed during Erie County’s 2005 fiscal crisis. 

Buffalo, some suggest, could follow that model by dipping into its federal pandemic aid money. As of July 31, the city had $202 million in American Rescue Plan Act funds that had been allocated, but not contracted, and therefore theoretically available.

Funds could also come from New York State, as they have in the past via construction and operating aid. State Sen. Sean Ryan, a Buffalo Democrat, is interested in getting more money to libraries. 

Or Buffalo could follow the lead of Inglewood and structure the community benefits agreement with the Buffalo Bills to help fund libraries.

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In Erie County, municipalities provide the buildings to house libraries and county government funds staff salaries, materials and other operating costs. 

The Central Terminal Neighborhood Association has proposed a branch library in Broadway-Fillmore.

“A lot of residents feel we were robbed when the library was closed,” said Chris Hawley, the neighborhood association’s president. “At the moment, it seems like there is an opportunity for a library to be established.” 

The association has suggested opening a library in an existing, vacant building, possibly one owned by the city – substantially reducing the upfront cost. The last new branch library built in Buffalo – Merriweather – cost $7.5 million in today’s dollars. 

Based on yearly operating budgets of smaller libraries in the Buffalo and Erie County system, a city branch could likely cost between $200,000 and $500,000 to operate annually.

Use of community benefits agreement

The community benefits agreement between the Clippers and Inglewood totaled $100 million, with $6 million earmarked for libraries. The investment has funded the construction and renovation of the library system’s main branch and the reopening of its Morningside Park branch, which had been closed for decades. 

“Libraries are critical to the development of youth,” Butts said. “They’re a place outside the school environment that you can go to receive information. And sometimes they’re safe places in the evening for children.”

Butts – who recalled spending late night hours at a Los Angeles library as a kid – believes libraries changed the trajectory of his life. He said the commitment to funding libraries through the community benefits agreement could do the same for today’s children.

“That’s what the impact a library can have on a child, because you have access to a world outside the world of your family,” Butts said.

John Goldstein, a national expert on community benefit agreements, said what happened in Inglewood is rare.

“Libraries could be attached [to a CBA]; the question is doing enough organizing to raise the profile of that issue,” he said. “There has to be a really strong constituency.”

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The community benefits agreement between Erie County and the Buffalo Bills commits the team to spend $3 million annually for 30 years to support the region’s social, educational, and economic health.”

The community benefits agreement with the Bills was approved in March. While the Bills will be responsible for spending the funds, a yet-to-be appointed oversight committee will be tasked with holding the team accountable to the goals outlined in the agreement. 

Funds will not begin to be dispersed until the Bills move into the new Orchard Park stadium, which is expected to be completed in 2026, according to Dan Meyer, Erie County spokesperson. 

Amherst steps in with funding

When Erie County slashed its library system’s budget by a quarter in 2005, Buffalo lost eight of its libraries, including five on the city’s East Side.

Eight suburban libraries also closed, but all four Amherst branches were spared, including the Williamsville branch, which was originally on the chopping block.

Williamsville’s branch library was saved in part by roughly $150,000 from the Amherst town budget, pushed by then-Amherst Supervisor Susan Grelick, and donations by community members. More than $250,000 kept the doors of the Williamsville library open, albeit for a reduced 20 hours a week.

“There was a groundswell of support for it,” Grelick said. “It had always been one of my priorities, to ensure that there was adequate funding for the libraries.”

She said the financial lifeboat from the Town of Amherst creates a model for municipalities to fund library operations. 

“There is definitely a precedent for it,” Grelick said. “We just all worked cooperatively to make it happen.”

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Nearly 20 years later, Amherst still holds the same commitment to its libraries, according to former and current public officials.

“It’s really a need within the community,” Amherst Supervisor Brian Kulpa said. “We should be increasing the number of libraries and the access points to libraries that we have, not decreasing them. But we’re a little bit backward in Western New York like that.”

According to the county library system’s construction needs assessment, Amherst’s four branches needed $4.8 million in renovations, as of 2019. In the past few years, through the town’s bonded funds and state aid, Amherst has dedicated $4.2 million toward the Audubon project, alone.

State senator wants more for libraries

New York State funds roughly 15 percent of the library system’s operating budget, with the county picking up virtually all the rest. The state also chips in more than $1 million annually toward capital construction.

Ryan, who serves on the Senate Library committee, is calling for more funding. 

“There’s definitely more for the state to do,” Ryan said. “We need to put more into that part of the budget. It’s an ongoing struggle, it’s not going to be solved in one budget year. But we are nowhere near close meeting the capital needs of libraries throughout New York State.”

Between state construction aid and the City of Buffalo’s bonded funds, more than $6 million has been spent upgrading Buffalo’s library branches since 2019.

But it hasn’t been enough.

“There is no library renovation that occurs without state money,” Ryan said. “Erie County couldn’t afford to do it alone.”

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