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RTM Restores Library's Money

The RTM voted last night (May 5) to restore the $45,000 cut to the Westport Library's budget. The vote was 33-1 with Judith Starr, District 1, as the only member voting against the restoration. Without the $45,000 the library would have had to close on sixteen Sundays.

Prior to the vote, library representatives and advocates spoke passionately about the library's increasingly important role in town life. Its management and pro-active cost cutting were also lauded. RTM member Gene Seidman called it “the cultural hub of the community.” President of the Library Board Martha Aasen, who has lived in town since 1963, said, “There have been lots of changes since then,” adding, “The library is our community center...our stellar free space.” She also enumerated the ways the library has controlled its budget while maintaining important services. She cited leaving staff positions unfilled, the use of bequest money for funding and reducing staff hours. “The suggestion that the library could cut elsewhere...is unrealistic,” she said, noting that the library's determination to be economical inluded “achieving concessions” from two bargaining units for delays in salary increases.

Library Director Maxine Bleiweis said that since she began her job in 1998, the library's circluation has almost doubled. She descibed the “conservative model” she and the board implemented that drives the library's fiscal policy. Its elements include cross-training staff, self-directed work teams and expanding the library's volunteer corps, which now numbers 400.

Former Chairman of the Board of Finance Alan Nevas, a retired judge, pointed out that the library has 21,000 card holders and Westport has 25,000 residents. “That means everybody goes to the library,” he said, adding to RTM members, “Think about this with your heart.”

Stan Witkow, an employment and outplacement consultant, said, “For my clients, the library is a lifeline to find jobs.” He praised the librarians for their efforts helping job seekers. The 700 Westport breadwinners out of work were frequently cited as a constituency that would be especially hurt by the loss of some Sunday hours.

“How can you ascribe what a library can really mean to a place?” asked writer and NPR commentator Frank Deford. He called the Westport Library “the soul of the community” and said, “It's the one place where you can give a little back and we are casting our bread on the waters and it's bound to come back.”

After public comment, RTM members offered the auience at Town Hall their thoughts about the library. They also described how challenging they found having to reduce budgets for essential services. Amy Ancel said she was on the fence and didn't know how she would ultimately vote on the restoration for the library. Judith Starr, in her remarks, seemed the least supportive of restoration. When the vote was taken, she was the holdout member who opposed it. The town's new budget goes into effect as of July 1.

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