Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke is backing away from plans to close the Cherry Hill branch of the Enoch Pratt Free Library and intends to assign a member of his staff to work in the facility until plans to staff it with volunteers are finalized.
In addition, Schmoke said last night, he is discussing the possibility of turning the entire library system over to a private operator as a way of saving the city money.
This year, city libraries were budgeted at $16 million.
"I don't want people to think we've decided on that," Schmoke said. "But private management of the system is one of the options on the table for consideration."
Regarding the Cherry Hill branch, the St. Veronica's Damascus Education Center has proposed running it if it could get $50,000 a year from the city. The branch is among eight branches scheduled to close in the next two weeks as part of a $1.3 million budgetcut to make up for a reduction in state aid to Baltimore.
"It will technically no longer be a branch of the Pratt library, but it will be open for people to come in and read books and do their homework," Schmoke said.
Schmoke also is offering the communities in which seven other libraries are to close ways to keep them open.
Library officials "have presented me with a plan to keep the branches as community-operated homework centers," Schmoke said. "The source of funds for those centers has not been identified yet. But we have had a lot of companies that have been calling inwith ideas about adopting homework centers and asking for budgets for them."
While the Cherry Hill plan is being reviewed, Schmoke said, he has committed to staffing the library with a member of the local mayor's station.
"The reason Cherry Hill is in a different situation is that it is a one-room facility in one of our multipurpose centers. It is very easy to move other people into that room," the mayor said.
The other libraries slated to close are: Canton, 1030 S. Ellwood Ave.; Clifton, 2001 N. Wolfe St.; Dundalk, 912 Dundalk Ave.; Gardenville, 5427 Belair Road; Hollins/Payson, 31 S. Payson St.; Morrell Park, 2446 Washington Blvd.; and Pimlico, 5001 Park Heights Ave.
Schmoke and Council President Mary Pat Clarke said that residents who live near the Canton branch already have devised an alternative plan that would allow their library to be operated at Canton Middle School with the help of the Southeast Community Organization.
Clarke said the plan was given to the council last night and was to be forwarded to Schmoke today.
Schmoke's decision to at least consider backing away from library closings is his second concession
since he announced a series of budget cuts earlier this month to make up for a $27.2 million reduction in state aid to Baltimore.
Initially, Schmoke said that 252 firefighters would lose jobs, schools would be closed for a week and at least seven library branches would be shut. But since then, Schmoke has reached an agreement that allows firefighters to keep their jobs.
But, the mayor said, he is sticking by his plan to close schools and furlough teachers for a week despite a state school board edict saying it will not grant any school system a waiver in the law that requires schools to be open 180 days.
"We have not made any changes in our plans," Schmoke said"The board hasn't even heard our case yet. . . . Ultimately, this may be a decision made by the courts."